BR sees spike in synthetic marijuana overdoses

Baton Rouge-area hospitals have treated at least 100 people in the past two weeks suffering from apparent synthetic marijuana overdoses, according to state and local authorities who are publicly warning teenagers and parents of the drug’s dangers.

The spike in overdoses, none fatal, prompted the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals secretary to sign an “emergency rule” banning eight new types of synthetic marijuana, many of which law enforcement officials say they have seen recently in Baton Rouge and surrounding areas.

“No temporary high is worth the serious devastating consequences these drugs could have,” DHH Secretary Kathy Kliebert said during a news conference Thursday to address the recent uptick in synthetic marijuana overdoses.

The East Baton Rouge Parish coroner, sheriff and other public officials participated in the news conference, underscoring the concerns about the drug’s dangers.

It wasn’t clear how many synthetic marijuana overdoses the area hospitals normally see in a two-week span. Dr. Beau Clark, the parish coroner, said local hospitals haven’t previously seen as many overdoses in such a short amount of time.

Synthetic marijuana usually consists of various herbs sprayed with synthetic compounds aimed at mimicking the effects of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

“The symptoms (of use) can range pretty widely from sedation to significant agitation, violent behavior, delirium, self-injurious behavior and frank psychosis,” said Dr. William Elliott, of Baton Rouge General Medical Center. The long-term effects of abusing the drug range from depression to psychotic breakdowns and schizophrenia diagnoses in patients with no history of mental illness, Elliott said.

The emergency rule, signed Thursday by Kliebert, will temporarily ban eight forms of synthetic marijuana not listed in the state’s law prohibiting banned Schedule I drugs. The list already includes more than a dozen types, or strands, of synthetic marijuana.

“Every time the government bans a substance, there’s chemists, there’s people looking to beat it, trying to come up with an alternative,” said East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux.

He added later, “This is not going to stop. We’re going to have to continually be vigilant.”

State Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, introduced into this legislative session’s crop of potential laws House Bill 229, which would add the eight substances banned by the 120-day emergency rule to the state’s law prohibiting the use of Schedule I drugs.

Last year, Mack introduced legislation banning forms of synthetic marijuana and bath salts, which was signed into law in May.

But there are thousands of possible chemical combinations that could produce highs similar to banned forms, meaning lawmakers likely will face banning new combinations in future sessions.

“It’s going to be a continual battle,” said Capt. Jim McGuane, director of the State Police Crime Lab, where scientists analyze drugs seized or bought undercover by law enforcement officers to find the newest varieties. The lab recently has received more synthetic marijuana than it has in the past, McGuane said.

An advanced knowledge in chemistry is required to make the compounds used in synthetic marijuana, he said.

“This is not something you can make in your kitchen,” McGuane said. “This is something that is being imported from overseas” in countries such as Japan and China.

Hillar Moore III, East Baton Rouge Parish’s district attorney, said he has used an “analog” provision in the state’s synthetic marijuana law to prosecute sellers even if the exact combination hasn’t been banned.

“If you’re selling something as a potpourri or fragrance, and you open the package and it doesn’t smell very good, it’s obviously not potpourri or fragrance,” Moore said. “It’s something else that’s designed to be synthetic marijuana.”

Spokesmen for the Baton Rouge Police Department and the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office couldn’t say how many people have been arrested in recent years on synthetic marijuana possession, nor could they say how many stores have been busted for selling the drugs in recent years.