|Synthetic ‘legal’ drugs being abused by kids (05/15/2011)
By Sarah Elmquist
|They call them plant food, bath salts, super coke, K2 and SPICE, tags for a new array of synthetic drugs that have taken hold of Winona’s youth. As lawmakers, public health officials, and police scramble to put regulations in place that will classify these compounds as illegal, Winona Health is reporting seeing an average of six synthetic drug overdose cases a week, and local experts say they’ve seen kids as young as 13 and 14 try them out.But for a drug like plant food, also called mephedrone, trying it once can mean a big battle ahead for young people, as experts are showing the drug can be highly addictive, and highly dangerous. And it’s apparent that Winona is having a bigger problem with kids using plant food than other communities in the region, including in La Crosse, where chemical dependency counselors say many kids don’t even know what the drug is.
Here in Winona, just about every kid seems to know about plant food, said Todd Hoffe, Hiawatha Valley Mental Health counselor. As younger and younger children are trying the drug, and more and more people are ending up in the emergency room, the situation is becoming more dire, he said. “I’m afraid that we could have some kids dying of this stuff,” he said. Plant food produces effects similar to methamphetamine, but also shows some of the symptoms found in opiates like heroin, Hoffe said, including the potential for brain bleeding, abnormal constriction of blood vessels, inflammation of blood vessels, seizures and even comas.
The drug can also produce hallucinations and extreme paranoia, meaning those who use the drug can present a danger to themselves. As plant food is currently legal, law enforcement officials have found themselves repeatedly responding to frantic 911 calls from those having adverse and paranoid reactions to plant food, having to weigh whether the user may be a danger to themselves, and whether they need to be sent to the hospital for treatment.
“The calls are coming in and they’re continual,” said Winona Police Community Liaison Kevin Kearney. “They’re typically overdose related, to where they’re hallucinating and they’re so paranoid that they’re making it sound like people are climbing in their windows to come after them.” Police have often found themselves jumping to respond to a high-priority call with lights and sirens, finding a person who has become so paranoid they want officers to look under their bed, they want to spend the night in a squad car for protection, or even, that werewolves are out to get them.
Plant food can be smoked or snorted, and some kids are even injecting it into their veins. Although legislation is pending that would render it illegal in Minnesota, today it is marketed literally as “plant food,” with labels indicating it’s “not for human consumption,” often with psychedelic packaging offering a wink-wink to let a person know it is really a drug. Another synthetic drug known as bath salts is marketed in a similar fashion, although officials say they haven’t seen much of it in Winona thus far. And the synthetic marijuana product known as K2 or SPICE is often packaged and advertised as though it were incense.
Plant food has become one of the biggest causes of emergency room visits due to synthetic drugs, with hospital officials showing a dramatic rise in such cases in recent months. “This is a fairly new phenomenon in our [Emergency Department],” said Rebecca Lamberty, Administrative Director of Emergency and Urgent Care Services at Winona Health. “Over the last nine months, this issue has skyrocketed.”
Hoffe said that those who use plant food can become extremely manic, moody, sensitive and paranoid. “It just changes their personality so much,” he said. “It happens so fast. One of the things kids are telling me is that even after the first time you use it, you want to use it again.” When asked if the drug is considered very addictive, Hoffe doesn’t hesitate. “Absolutely.”
With legislation attempting to catch pace with the rise of this and other synthetic drugs, officials are hoping that a community forum, and other outreach efforts, will help parents and the community become more aware about the dangers, and what they can do to help. “Parents need to get educated, first,” said Hoffe. “I do think that everybody needs to be talking about this, in schools and in homes and with coaches. I’m going to talk to anybody who will listen.”
Senator Jeremy Miller (R-Winona) has offered an amendment to the Senate Omnibus Drug bill that would make plant food, or mephedrone, illegal.
The legislation would make the drug a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning it is considered a drug with a high potential for abuse and includes no accepted medical use. Penalties for possession or sale would be similar to other drugs in this class, and could include felony charges.
The amendment was passed with a vote of 65-0. Following the governor’s signature, the bill will become effective August 1, 2011.
The bill would also make it illegal to possess or sell the artificial marijuana drugs known as K2 and SPICE, and would add other synthetic drugs known as 2C-E and 2C-1 to the list of Schedule 1 controlled substances.
Kearney said the legislation will help law enforcement officials in addressing synthetic drug abuse. The problem, however, is that with synthetic drugs, once a particular chemical or compound is deemed illegal, it’s often altered just enough to be considered a different substance altogether, then re-marketed. Officials say the use of these kinds of substances have to be closely monitored to keep laws current. “It’s a great step forward,” said Kearney of the pending drug bill.
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