CORBIN — By Jeff Noble / Staff Writer
At 28,251 feet, K2 is the second highest mountain in the world. Located on the Chinese-Pakistan border in the continent of Asia, it’s the highest peak in Pakistan.
But some say that high’s nothing compared to the high they get from a package of K2, which they can easily buy.
The Scooby Doo that’s become popular in the Tri-County region in recent months has nothing to do with the cartoon character of the same name — the Scooby Doo that parents of a generation ago used to watch on TV.
Today, some of those parents are concerned about their teenagers using packages of what’s called “Scooby Snax.” And those snacks aren’t dog biscuits.
And what comes to mind when some hear the word, “Spice?”
Not the saying, “Sugar and spice and everything nice” that your granny used to tell you, or the Spice Girls your daughter may have liked, or your dad’s Old Spice after shave.
Are they known as “synthetic marijuana” drugs? Yep.
Are they popping up in the Tri-County region? Same answer.
“It’s gotten bad here in the last month or so. The schools have brought that to our attention,” said Carlos Cameron, who’s the Region 1 Coalition Coordinator with Operation UNITE. Cameron’s been keeping an eye on his territory about the rise in synthetic marijuana, which has cropped up in the area he covers — Whitley County, Laurel County, and the city of Corbin.
“There’s a lot of problems with it, and there’s an increased awareness on it in the past few weeks. The problem is, it’s legal,” said Elissa Price, who’s Treatment Director for Operation UNITE.
At the same time, several Tri-County governments have taken steps to make the drug illegal.
The Laurel County Fiscal Court was the first to do it by approving the first reading of an ordinance banning the possession and sale of synthetic marijuana on Dec. 20. When Laurel County Sheriff John Root asked court members to approve the first reading at that meeting, two representatives from local high schools indicated they’d seen students in those schools who had taken the substances and overdosed.
Summer Lewis was one of those representatives. She works with the Laurel County school system, helping teenagers who have substance abuse problems.
“I felt like it was more noticeable around the time of last summer’s Chicken Festival. The group I was working with told me there were different brands of synthetic marijuana, and how they made them feel,” Lewis told The Times-Tribune during a telephone interview last week.
“They told me you can smoke it, just like regular marijuana. You can roll it onto a cigarette paper. You can put it in brownies, put it in pipes, and put it in bongs. But most of them smoke it like a joint. It can be sprayed, but it cannot be bought as a spray. It’s almost always ordered from overseas, from China and Korea,” Lewis pointed out.
Laurel County’s Fiscal Court will vote on the second reading at its monthly meeting Jan. 26. If approved, the ordinance becomes law.
The city of Corbin was next to take action. Towards the end of its monthly meeting on Jan. 9, Corbin City Commissioner Joe White made the motion for a first reading of an ordinance to make synthetic marijuana illegal. Commissioner Joe Shelton seconded the motion, and it was approved unanimously.
“It’s a cousin of meth. The retailers will sell it to anybody under the counter. It’s six times more powerful than marijuana,” White said afterwards, and suggested Corbin Police do investigative work on the drug.
Unless a special meeting is called, the Corbin City Commission is expected to approve the second reading. If so, the ordinance is official.
The problem was brought up at last Thursday’s meeting of the Corbin School Board. And the concerns from school board members were many.
“We were enlightened. There’s about 200 varieties of synthetic marijuana, and it’s four-to-ten times stronger than natural marijuana. It’s not illegal. It can be bought at many gas stations. The robbery at the adult place in Gray? They were after synthetic marijuana. This is scary, folks,” Corbin School Superintendent Ed McNeel told the audience after he and others sat in on a meeting last Monday about the problem.
McNeel added the school board was looking into having a community forum on synthetic marijuana use soon, as well as a parents’ forum, to let them know about what needs to be done. “I enlightened the mayor (Corbin Mayor Willard McBurney) about this, and his eyes popped up. It’s not the substance that causes the problem, it’s the spray that causes it. It’s synthetic, it’s scary, and it’s legal.”
“We’ve got to put pressure on our elected officials to make this illegal,” said Lisa Cleary, who’s Vice-Chair of the Corbin School Board.
Whitley County became the third area to get on the bandwagon this Tuesday. At its monthly meeting in Williamsburg, the Fiscal Court approved the first reading of an ordinance banning the use of synthetic marijuana in Whitley County. That unanimous vote came after District Judge Cathy Prewitt told court members about the dangers the chemical-laced products pose to people who smoke them.
The second reading is expected to come next month. If approved, the ordinance will become law.
In addition, the city of Williamsburg is also looking into passing its own anti-synthetic marijuana ordinance as well. Mayor Roddy Harrison said Wednesday it’s just a matter of time. “If they’re having a problem in Corbin, and they shut down selling it up there, they’ll come here next. Our ordinance will be preventative as well. We’re looking at it, so we’re doing the research part now. I don’t know at this time what that will entail, but we will put up an ordinance soon.”
It’s expected both the Knox County Fiscal Court and the city of Barbourville will be watching what happens with their neighbors to the west and see what happens next.
What concerns Price most is what the drugs can do to those who take them. In her position with the schools in Laurel County, she helps individuals find treatment, and in some cases, help them pay for that treatment. It’s the symptoms from the use of synthetic marijuana that she watches out for.
“Rapid heart rate is the biggest concern. For an 18-year-old to have a heart attack is a big problem. There can be severe withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, tremors, nausea, depression, palpitations, desperation, suicidal thoughts, and permanent psychosis.”
Hospitals across Kentucky and the nation have reported cases of overdoses from the drug, but that’s not been the case at St. Joseph-London, according to Sharon Hershberger, who’s the hospital’s Public Affairs Director.
“I talked with our ED Director and she says they have not seen any cases of synthetic marijuana use or abuse in our Emergency Department,” Hershberger said in an e-mail on Thursday.
Making the drug illegal in Kentucky may be starting to shake in Frankfort, thanks to a bill introduced during their recent session. State Representative C. B. Embry (R-Morgantown) is the author of the legislation, banning the sale of synthetic marijuana in the state. House Bill 198 is now in the House Judiciary Committee.
Meanwhile the Synthetic Drug Control Act was passed on Dec. 8 by the U. S. House of Representatives. It passed, with 317 in favor, with 98 against it. Price said a slightly different version of the act is now in the U. S. Senate. U. S. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa is sponsoring the bill, but she noted passage is delayed over an objection from U. S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. According to American Medical News, Sen. Paul didn’t respond to questions seeking comment on the legislative hold, which senators sometimes place on bills over matters unrelated to legislation in question.
“Right now, only five of the roughly 200 variations of synthetic marijuana are federally banned,” Price pointed out.
What happens next remains to be seen. Without passage of strong federal and state laws, Price feels it’s up to local governments — and concerned people — to step up to the plate.
“After Dr. Huffman created synthetic marijuana to help cancer patients and saw what later happened, he was quoted as saying, ‘Anybody who uses this is an idiot. I’ve created a monster.’ All I want is this very harmful drug taken off the streets.”
What is synthetic marijuana?
Synthetic marijuana combines herbs mixed in with a bit of chemically-produced marijuana, and is usually marketed as incense and bath salts. It’s made to mimic the effects of the real thing that’s grown out of the ground by binding to similar receptors in the brain. It’s widely available across the nation, and it’s been hailed as a legal alternative to marijuana.
It all began at Clemson University, where researchers developed synthetic cannabinoids to create therapeutic drugs. Dr. John Huffman created the cannabinoid compounds while at Clemson, and during that work it was discovered the cannabinoids have effects similar to marijuana’s main ingredient, THC.
Sometimes, synthetic marijuana is labeled and marketed as “legal” substances. And while countries like Germany, Great Britian, France and Poland have made their sale and use illegal, it’s available in most of the United States, even though its sale and use is slowly being banned in states.
They go under names like “Spice” and “Scooby Snax,” which authorities say are the most popular here in the Tri-County region.
“It’s the strongest one out there. Those who’ve used it say it makes you feel like you’re on meth,” said Summer Lewis, who works with students in the Laurel County School system who are fighting substance abuse.
Other names for synthetic marijuana include “Mr. Nice Guy” (it’s the one with the yellow smiley face), “Wig Splitter,” “Dead Man Walking,” “Bob Marley” (named after the late reggae singer from Jamaica), “K2,” “MILF,” and “Mr. Happy.”
Lewis told the Times-Tribune the synthetic marijuana being sold looks like a package of “pop rocks.”
Of the 200 varieties of the drug sold, only five are illegal.
The illegal forms are JWH-018 and four similar cannabinoids. JWH-018 (named after the drug’s creator, Dr. John W. Huffman)is a synthetic that binds CB1 and CB2 receptors, with a moderate selectivity for the CB2 receptor and produces effects consistent with THC, natural marijuana’s main ingredient. The five cannabinoids are classified by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in March of last year as Schedule I controlled substances, which make their use and possession illegal in all 50 states. At present the law allows for a DEA study for one year on the effects of JWH-018 on the human body, so they can determine if it should be classified permanently as a Schedule I substance in America.
One way the manufacturers get around the illegal tag is by calling them “herbal incense,” and being sold in small pouches or packets in places like tobacco or smoke shops, drug paraphernalia shops, adult book and movie stores, convenience stores, gas stations, or on the Internet.
Another way is for manufacturers to slightly alter the chemical compounds. That happens when synthetic marijuana is declared illegal. The product is made to try to be a synthetic cannabinoid, but it’s not truly a cannabinoid, which is why it’s not often illegal. As a result, many synthetic marijuana brands are legal in Kentucky because the slight chance in the formula puts them out of danger of violating the state’s law without lowering the brand’s kick.
One brand of the drug, known as “Mad Hatter,” contains the chemical JWH-250, which is illegal to sell in Kentucky. Last month, a convenience store owner in Owensboro was cited with trafficking in a synthetic cannabinoid, a class A misdemeanor. If convicted, the owner can be sentenced to 12 months in jail and a fine of $500.
Last March, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) banned the sale of the chemicals used to manufacture two brands of synthetic marijuana, Spice and K2.
At least 40 states have taken action to ban chemicals found in K2 and Spice, including Kentucky and its neighboring states. One such bill to ban synthetic marijuana is now in the state House of Representatives and is presently in the House Judiciary Committee.
What has Congress done about banning the drugs’ availability? The House of Representatives passed legislation last month that would ban synthetic drugs, including those marketed as “bath salts.” But the Senate version of the legislation has hit a snag.
Authorities and national anti-drug organizations will continue to work with people in public health and safety, along with law enforcement, to answer the increased threat caused by the drugs, but the National Drug Control Policy’s director, Gil Kerlikowske, said the first line of defense for young adults and children are their parents.
“Parents are the most powerful force in the lives of young people, and we ask that all of them talk to their teens today about the serious consequences of using (synthetic) marijuana, K2 or Spice.”
Synthetic, scary and local
Kentucky and region seeing the highs and lows of synthetic marijuana abuse
By Jeff Noble
Information released from the National Institute on Drug Abuse last month showed what the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy called a “troubling” prevalence of synthetic drug abuse among high school seniors nationwide. That report mentioned that one in nine high school seniors had used “K2” or “Spice” over the last year, and went on to say that synthetic marijuana was now the second most frequently used illicit drug by high school seniors, after marijuana.
Even more frightening to authorities is the rise in calls to Poison Control Centers in America during 2011. As of last October, over 5,500 calls relating to synthetic marijuana were reported — over twice the number reported in 2010. And that increase was also mirrored in Kentucky as well.
The reports of what happened to places tightening up their drug laws, and those abusing the drug, have been documented across the state and region.
In McCracken County, where Paducah is located, a law banning synthetic marijuana is back on the books, and authorities say this one has teeth. Instead of a few chemicals being banned, the new one passed in November of 2011 bans thousands of chemicals.
According to Paducah’s WPSD-TV, the new ordinance names potential chemicals that can be used in future production of synthetic marijuana. More important, the ordinance can be amended as soon as law enforcement runs across any compound not listed.
It helps law enforcement get around the problem they had when drug manufacturers simply alter the drug’s formula, where they find new chemicals that give the same high, while side-stepping old laws. It comes at a time when the side effects of the drug, and what’s happening in the emergency room, are making people notice.
On synthetic marijuana’s side effects, McCracken County Sheriff Jon Hayden said, “Deathly ill, vomiting uncontrollably, not able to stop. Hallucinations, severe headaches, rapid heart rate, making people so sick they think they’re dying basically.”
Both the Paducah Police Department and the McCracken County Sheriff’s Office subpoenaed one month’s worth of ambulance responses from Mercy Regional in Paducah, and found out more than a dozen teens and young adults got violently sick after smoking the substance, and had to be rushed to the emergency room.
Hayden added, “If the trend continues that we’ve seen locally, there’s no question we’re going to lose lives over it.”
Also last November, one of Northern Kentucky’s best players in high school football didn’t make the playoffs, because of reports that he and other players at Dixie Heights High School were using synthetic marijuana before games.
Quarterback Zeke Pike was suspended from the playoff game, according to kypost.com and their sister station, WCPO-TV in Cincinnati. The story said the entire team had individual meetings with coaches and the school’s assistant superintendent about the drug use. In addition, the school sent home a letter to parents about the incident. The letter said, “Please be aware that there is a rumor that students may be using synthetic marijuana although it is legal for 18-year-olds. It is still very dangerous for their health.”
Last spring in Eastern Kentucky, some $7,000 worth of suspected synthetic marijuana was seized from a liquor store near Hazard by State Police and state Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) officers.
A KSP captain told The Hazard Herald the substance they recovered had been sent to a state laboratory for testing to determine exactly what the substance is. Captain Scott Miller said once that’s determined, specific charges can be brought against those responsible for the sale of the items at the liquor store. He went on to say the substance seized was marketed as incense.
The substance was synthetic marijuana. Months later, the suspect — the owner of the liquor store — pleaded guilty of trafficking in synthetic cannabinoids and got six months diversion from the District Court Judge. His case is also pending through the state ABC board.
And in the Nashville, Tenn. region, doctors at a hospital in neighboring Hermitage noticed last month four young men coming into the hospital’s emergency room, complaining of heart trouble. Two of them had full-blown heart attacks.
“Heart attacks, actual heart attack in somebody who’s young,” Dr. Jeff Greenlee of Summit Medical Center told WTVF-NewsChannel5 in Nashville. Marijuana use was the common link between the four men who were in their late teens and early 20’s.
Greenlee added, “There’s potential that the supply of marijuana could be laced with K2, there’s always that possibility. Certainly in these cases that was our suspicion... They may think they’re just smoking benign marijuana and come in with a real heart attack.”
The report from Nashville noted that prominent medical journals have documented a possible link between the use of synthetic marijuana and teen heart attacks.
When asked “What can people do about it?” Summer Miller, who works with the Laurel County Schools helping teenagers overcome their substance abuse problems, told the Times-Tribune, “That’s a good question.”
“We can’t do anything about the synthetic marijuana problem until it becomes illegal. Kids tell me, ‘What can they do to me? It’s legal.’ So make the use and sale illegal, like it’s being done in Corbin and Laurel County (and now Whitley County). This is for now. Hopefully, they’ll have state and federal laws on the books soon. The less available it is, the less chances there are to buy it. We’ve got to start somewhere.”