Newest designer drugs show up in county
Alcohol and marijuana have long been the top drugs of choice for Chesterfield’s young people, but a new generation of dangerous, mind-altering substances is causing concern among law enforcement and substance abuse professionals.
With names like Spice and bath salts, these so-called designer drugs sound benign, but several county teenagers have already landed in the emergency room after taking them.
In February, seven young people were treated at county hospitals after taking 25i, a hallucinogen that’s believed to be many times stronger than LSD.
The drug causes increased heart rate and blood pressure, anxiety, aggression and paranoia. At least one teen had to be transferred to VCU Medical Center due to a brain hemorrhage.
The drug was distributed at a party by an 18-year-old man who had purchased it online from China. Police responded to the party after receiving a noise complaint. It then reportedly took five first responders to subdue one of the teens who had taken 25i.
The drug’s distributor was later arrested and charged by county police.
In April, St. Francis Medical Center treated a Midlothian teen who smoked what’s known as bath salts, a synthetic stimulant that’s marketed as a bath product but is actually used to get high.
“She was tearing off her clothes, running through a public area,” said Dr. Daniel Angeli, medical director of St. Francis’ emergency department, who treated the girl. “She almost ran into a busy street. She could have killed herself.”
The teen was released from the hospital after being treated for severe agitation. “Teenagers always think they’re immune to problems until someone close to them gets hurt,” said Dr. S. Rutherfoord Rose, director of the Virginia Poison Center in Richmond. “All of these things are dangerous, and it really is Russian roulette.” Definition of designer drugs
Substance Abuse Free Environment (SAFE), a county coalition to prevent substance abuse, defines designer drugs as “synthetic drugs that have been chemically altered to circumvent drug laws. These chemicals, which are classified as ‘not for human consumption,’ emerged in 2010, when they first became available online.”
Chesterfield’s first taste of designer drugs came when convenience stores began carrying synthetic cannabinoid products, often sold under the names of Spice, K2, Mr. Smiley and Blaze.
The term synthetic cannabinoid is a misnomer since “no psychopharmacological differences exist between this substance and marijuana,” according to the May issue of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Law Enforcement Bulletin.
“In 1995, a Clemson University professor used a synthetic compound to conduct research identifying the effects on the brain from cannabinoids,” reads the bulletin. “Following the publication of a paper detailing the experiment, the description of the method and ingredients became popular among persons searching for a marijuana-like high.
People began spraying the synthetic chemical compound described in the article on dry herbs, and then smoking them as they would regular marijuana.”
Synthetic cannabinoids are usually sold in small, silvery plastic bags and marketed as potpourri or incense. Most also include wording on their packages indicating the products are not for human consumption.
Young people assume synthetic cannabinoids are safe to smoke since they’re compared to marijuana, but the side effects are far from the sedate, drowsy feeling most people associate with smoking a joint.
The products generally cause increased heart rate and blood pressure, agitation, paranoia, giddiness and even violence.
In October, a South Carolina medical examiner ruled synthetic marijuana caused the death of an Anderson University basketball player.
Other media reports link the products to serious health complications, including heart and kidney failure.
So far this year, the Virginia Poison Center has received more than 30 calls from hospitals and the public reporting bad effects from synthetic cannabinoids. There have been more than 140 such calls since fall 2010.
“It has trailed off in terms of the reports we get from emergency rooms in these cases,” Rose said.
That decline is due largely to legislation passed last year that makes synthetic cannabinoids illegal in Virginia. The General Assembly expanded the law this year by adding new designer products, including bath salts.
Synthetic cannabinoids aren’t just for teens. As of June 30, there have been 50 adults arrested in the county this year for possessing or distributing synthetic cannabinoids. In 2011, police made 36 arrests under the statute, which went into effect in March.
Since synthetic cannabinoids are now illegal, users typically purchase the substances in three ways: from their drug dealer, online or from convenience stores outside of the county that still carry them.
“There are some places that will sell it under the counter,” said Capt. Brad Badgerow with the Chesterfield Police Department’s Special Investigations Division. “It’s been over a year since we charged a store owner for it through our vice and narcotics unit.”
The effects of designer drugs
When it comes to designer drugs, synthetic cannabinoids are the least worrisome, said Wayne Frith, SAFE’s director. As states across the nation outlawed synthetic cannabinoids, designer drug-makers rolled out new products, like bath salts and 25i, to stay ahead of legislators.
Since most of these products are sold in stores or online, there’s a perception that they’re safe to use. That belief can have deadly consequences.
“This truly is reckless behavior, in that these chemicals are not tested,” Rose said. “You have no idea what you’re taking. There’s a huge inherent danger in that.”
The Virginia Poison Center’s operators routinely receive calls from or about people who are experiencing bad effects after taking designer drugs. Operators always advise the user to go to their nearest emergency department.
“If we think someone has been exposed, we say they need to go to the emergency department because this can kill you,” Rose said. “We try to convince them that harm can happen, and they need to get checked.”
Emergency department employees then face the challenge of finding out what substance has been taken. Many hospitals don’t have blood tests to identify designer drugs, so it often falls to friends or family members to reveal what substance has been taken. That can be a scary situation for teens who fear getting in trouble.
“We’re treating [overdoses] symptomatically because we rarely are able to actively define what people are taking,” Rose said.
In the past, addiction was the biggest danger when it came to drug use. But designer drugs could change that. They’ve been linked to sudden death and suicide.
“The drugs have fairly immediate effects,” Angeli said. “It may take only that first time, and it can cause serious harm. These are pretty much all made in illegal labs, so you don’t know what they’re mixing in there. Frequently, there are multiple drugs people are taking.”
County sees a lull
SAFE continues to educate the public about the dangers of designer drugs.
“You can’t develop a strategy for every [drug],” Frith said. “Right now, the only thing we can come up with is education – to tell people it’s synthetic, you don’t know what you’re dealing with and it’s dangerous.”
So far, most county teens seem to be listening, particularly when it comes to 25i.
“I think word has gotten around that it’s such a powerful drug,” Frith said. “They don’t know how much to take, and they’ve heard horror stories about people who have taken too much. I think the word has gotten around that it is a dangerous one, and you have to be really careful.”
In February, Richard Grosse, a licensed clinical social worker with Dominion Behavioral Healthcare, became alarmed when his teen clients began talking about the influx of designer drugs. The reports were particularly prevalent from students attending the county’s more affluent high schools, like Cosby, Midlothian and James River, since those teens have more discretionary cash, Grosse said.
That chatter has quieted down in recent months. Virginia law has made it more difficult for teens to buy synthetic cannabinoids and bath salts, and the police have done a good job of quashing 25i, Grosse said.
“I’m not seeing [any drug] really big right now, besides the usual,” he said. “Kids are still smoking pot, and kids are still drinking.”