Gov. Bob McDonnell has signed a bill into law that adds several new compounds to the list of banned synthetic marijuana and stimulants in an effort to crack down on the use and distribution of these drugs that were until recently legal to purchase and consume.
Synthetic marijuana — known as synthetic cannabinoids by law enforcement and medical professionals — has emerged at the forefront of a complicated push and pull between shrewd chemists who continually try to bypass the law and the legislative and law enforcement bodies racing to keep up.
Bills to criminalize the drugs were introduced and signed into law in 2011 and 2012. Del. T. Scott Garrett of the Virginia General Assembly, who introduced the bill signed by McDonnell (R), said chemists will change one or two things in the compound so the drug is then slightly different from the exact compounds listed in Virginia State Code. The synthetic cannabinoids go by a variety of names, like Spice and K2.
A series of information sessions were held late last year to educate people around the region about the danger of using the drugs. In an interview for that article, Jack Fitzpatrick, regional criminal justice planner for the Historic Triangle, said the drugs can cause psychosis, paranoia, lockjaw, increased body temperature, hallucinations, chest pain, confusion and high blood pressure.
Synthetic cannabinoids are often sold alongside so-called “bath salts,” a drug that is sold in a powder form and is commonly ingested, snorted or smoked. Both the bath salts and synthetic cannabinoids come in packaging that says “not for human consumption” in order to bypass existing drug laws.
Cindy Levy, the adult outpatient services coordinator at Colonial Behavioral Health, said these drugs are a small but growing problem.
“It’s worrisome to us because some of the agitating effects are creating more encounters with emergency services,” Levy said. Out of the 912 people treated for substance abuse in 2012, about 5 percent had used the drugs. In 2013, Colonial Behavioral Health has treated 516 individuals, and about 10 percent of them had used the drugs.
Levy said the drugs have also resulted in 10 psychiatric hospitalizations between January 2012 and present. Those who were hospitalized have resorted to violence. She said Spice and similar substances can be between four and 100 times more potent than marijuana.
“We’re happy to see [the new law],” said Sandy Fagan, the executive director of Bacon Street, a treatment center in Williamsburg that caters to young people and their families. “It’s a constant catch-up battle for law enforcement and for us as a community and as a society to keep pace with what happens in a laboratory.”
Fagan said that since patients at Bacon Street first began to report experiences with the drugs more than three years ago, the number of people he has seen who have used the drugs have climbed to the point where half of the kids who are receiving treatment have used the drugs at some point. Out of the 105 patients currently receiving treatment at Bacon Street, 12 are there primarily because of use of these drugs.
“There’s probably not an emergency room in the country that hasn’t had to deal with someone who is flipped out on Spice,” Fagan said. “We’ve had people end up suicidal. We’ve had people injure other people and even kill them because they get pretty crazy on the drug when there’s an overdose.”
Maj. Greg Riley of the Williamsburg Police Department said officers in the department have seen the drugs at about the same ratio they do marijuana.
“At least once a week we’re seeing a report of some kind with Spice involved in it,” Riley said. “It seems to be an age range of older teens to the under 30 crowd.”
Riley said there have not been any serious incidents with the drug other than someone who had to be transported to the hospital after they got ill.
Maj. Stephen Rubino of the James City County Police Department said it is “not uncommon” for county police to encounter Spice, typically in the hands of people in their teens to mid-20s. They see the other substances with far less frequency.
“We’ve made a few arrests this year on [Spice],” Rubino said. “Marijuana is still more prevalent than the Spice.”
In York County, there were eight arrests in 2011, 22 in 2012 and nine so far this year for use of these substances.
“It’s hit or miss over here,” said York County Commonwealth Attorney Ben Hahn. “It pops up every now and then. I can’t say it’s an epidemic with the charges we’ve been seeing coming through the office.”
These chemicals, which were initially discovered in a Clemson University research laboratory, became more widespread when the research that found them was published on the Internet, Del. Garrett said.