TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY

Local News

January 23, 2012

New high on the way down?

Synthetic marijuana: It’s here and it’s a problem

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.”

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