David Mark Greaves
David Mark Greaves

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By Akosua K. Albritton

What is the highest mountain after Mt. Everest? It is K2. The “K” is for the Karakoran range and the “2” because it is the second peak. Synthetic marijuana is dubbed K2 because it is said to be not as euphoric or as enduring an experience when smoked compared to the natural plant cannabis sativa, or marijuana. The other nickname for K2 Mountain is “The Savage Mountain”. Unfortunately, this name fits K2, the chemical substance, snugly.

The makers of synthetic marijuana attempt to mimic the natural substance called THC. However, as the adage goes, “Ain’t nothing like the real thing”, the chemical equivalents, synthetic cannabinoids, are unable to affect the melatonin and serotonin that are located in the brain the way THC does. The laboratory equivalent of a natural substance tends to have negative side effects and ash that is acid to the body system. The laboratory-spawned mood-altering substance tends to induce a stronger dependency.

Back in March 2012, the New York State Health Department and the City of New York banned the sale of products containing synthetic cannabinoids; however, due to chemists’ ability to make alternative chemical compounds, these “herbal incense”–as they are marketed within convenience stores and smoke shops—continued to be sold. The chemists stay abreast of the substance that has become a federally controlled substance and subsequently, develop another chemical string.

Since January 2016, more than 8,000 synthetic cannabinoid-related emergency department visits are counted in New York City. People continue to buy K2 and its cohorts Spice, Scooby Doo Snacks and Green Giant. The resurgence is powered by the liquid form of synthetic cannabinoids which are ingested using hookah pens, vapor pens and e-cigarettes. These substances and tobacco products were removed from convenience stores and pharmacies to smoke shops.

It has been a belief that with the low price ($1 – $5) and packaging similar to Kool-Aid packs the marketing is designed to attract the teen population. However, a NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOH) January 2016 report reveals that 90% of emergency room visits due to K2 are made by men. The median age is 37 years and 99% of patients are at least 18 years old.

While data is not immediately available from hospitals serving Central Brooklyn (i.e., Brooklyn Hospital, Interfaith Medical Center and Woodhull Medical Center), DOH reports 46% of all New York City emergency room visits due to synthetic cannabinoids are people residing in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Bushwick and Williamsburg.

Dr. Charles Lawrence, Chairman of Emergency Medicine at Interfaith Medical Center explains: “Over the past year, the Emergency Department of Interfaith Medical Center has seen an increase in patients with acute drug intoxication that is suspected to be induced by K2 or Spice. This presents a particular challenge as there may be as many as 6-10 patients daily and all at the same time in the ED. They present with varied manifestations from deep sedation to seizures and all require continuous monitoring and supportive care. They are managed as all acute intoxications are: with the more severe cases being admitted to the hospital. Current testing for K2 requires a specialized urine analysis. Samples are collected and sent by our lab to an independent reference laboratory that performs this specialized test.”

Whether ingested through a hookah, rolled in tobacco leaves or stuffed in a pipe, this substance is wreaking havoc of people’s lives. The “new girl on the street” contains the MAB-CHMINACA compound. It, like the other compounds, can produce the following negative reactions: vomiting, seizures, hallucinations, agitation, a rise in blood pressure, loss of consciousness and even death. Awilda Molina, Clinical Director for the Realization Center in Brooklyn, said users “can be homicidal or suicidal…there are unpredictable results for each user”. In 2014, Realization Center had a urine test that detects K2. A recent search online for K2 detection reveals the existence of saliva and urine tests that detect the known synthetic cannabinoids compounds. Mirroring the chemists who “run” to develop the latest synthetic cannabinoid compounds, other monitoring labs “chase” after the latest chemical compound to detect.

The US Office of National Drug Control Policy calls synthetic cannabinoids and other designer drugs “synthetic drugs”. As an ordinary American, one may not be familiar with the expression nor its definition. One may ask aren’t all laboratory-produced substances—for example, cough syrup, aspirin, tranquilizers—drugs made from synthetic substances? CNN’s Tricia Escobedo writes, “There is no exact definition, because the term is used to describe a wide range of chemical products that are ever-changing. Synthetic marijuana and “bath salts” are the most common of these drugs, which are often sold as incense or plant food”. The Urban Dictionary explains it as “the term that refers to nonorganic, chemically synthesized, unsafe recreational drugs”.

In response to 130 people being admitted to NYC hospitals in the week of July 11, 2016 due to synthetic cannabinoid ingestion–33 of which were found lying on Stockton Street in Brooklyn, July 13– US Senator Charles Schumer presented federal legislation, Dangerous Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2016, to ban 22 synthetic drugs. Schumer produced similar legislation in 2012, the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012. It named 20 substances for listing as federally controlled substances and expanded the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) scheduling authority.

The public might ask how effective is the legislation when the rogue chemists can find the legislation which lists the proposed substances from electronic and hard copy news services? New York City government’s approach is to make business difficult for the stores found to be selling it. Store owners risk up to one year in prison, fines up to $100,000 and loss of license to sell lottery tickets.

What of the users of synthetic cannabinoids? What is their release from their dependency? A legal enterprise may be shut down but–as the saying goes—they are still “fiending”. News reports of the July 13 mass collapse of people suffering from K2 ingestion also reported that some people released from the hospital returned the same day to the area in search of the drug.

NYS Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) funds 41 outpatient clinics, 7 intensive residential facilities, 4 medical-managed detoxification sites, 4 community residential facilities, 3 supportive living facilities and 2 inpatient residential programs in Brooklyn. Depending on one’s personal finances and health insurance coverage, a person in severe crisis may obtain only medical-managed detoxification and outpatient services although an inpatient residential program or intensive residential facility would be optimal care.

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