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Synthetic Marijuana use on the rise in New York City

Posted by Weed York City on Thursday, April 23, 2015

On April 17, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene issued a press release warning New Yorkers about the dangers of synthetic drugs in response to a spike in emergency room visits attributed to "synthetic marijuana."

Between April 8th and 15th of 2015 there were more than 120 emergency department visits recorded by the NYC DOHMH. According to the press release, the majority of the cases were located in East Harlem, and the median age of the individuals was 35.

Often called "K2" or "Spice," synthetic marijuana is a compound often marketed as a legal alternative to marijuana or as an incense or potpourri with the label "not for human consumption." They are made by spraying chemicals on mixture of plant-like material meant to simulate the look of marijuana. But while it may look like marijuana, the effect of the chemical is more like methamphetamine and is by far more dangerous than marijuana as it can even cause death after first time use.

According to NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett, "Despite what the package might say, there`s no way of knowing exactly what synthetic marijuana contains… The consequences of using synthetic marijuana are unpredictable and I urge people not to use these dangerous and illegal drugs."

A recent study conducted by researchers at NYU, shows that 1 in 10 high school seniors has used synthetic marijuana in the last year. Although the use of synthetic marijuana has decreased over the past few years as more and more states have enacted legislation making it illegal, the fact that around 10% of high school seniors have been exposed to the drug is alarming.

While many states have attempted to make synthetic marijuana illegal, it remains available in many areas as manufacturers use legal loopholes to keep their products on the shelves. Since most legislation specifies the specific chemical compounds that are illegal, manufacturers of the drug can simply tweak the chemical structure slightly, so the chemical is technically different from the one that is illegal but still produces the same or similar effects when used.

In New York, both the New York State and New York City Commissioners of Health have banned five types of synthetic cannabinoids already banned by the Drug Enforcement Administration as of March 1, 2011. However, the recent rash of incidents resulting in ER visits clearly show that synthetic marijuana use is still an issue in New York City.

"Though believed by many to be safe, these products are actually shredded plant material — that no one really knows the origin of — that have been sprayed with harmful chemicals. If smoked, it is these chemicals that can create extremely harmful effects including anxiety, sedation, rapid heart rate, vomiting and seizures," said Council Member Corey Johnson, Chair of the Health Committee in the press release. "Cannabinoids can even cause kidney failure or in the most extreme cases, heart attacks. I commend the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for swiftly taking action to warn New Yorkers of these risks."

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, has also expressed serious concerns about synthetic drugs, saying "Synthetic drugs are anything but harmless, and this rash of severe health emergencies across the state is direct proof."

There have been cases of deaths caused by synthetic marijuana use, including the case of one Atlanta teen, who was found dead in his family`s hot tub after synthetic marijuana caused his lungs to shut down.

In spite of the health risks and the fact that selling synthetic marijuana is technically illegal, New Yorkers continue to use these dangerous drugs. In October 2004, DNAinfo reported on bodegas around the city that were continuing to sell synthetic marijuana despite the illegal status of the substance.

According to the report, officials have had a problem getting the drug out of stores because of the way the stipulations of the law. "Because it`s a violation to sell, manufacture or possess K2 and not a crime, I can`t write a search warrant for someone to go down in the storage room and seize all of the merchandise," Assistant District Attorney Kaitrin Roberts said.

It is equally difficult to reign in the manufacturers of these drugs, as many of them are located overseas. According to a report by TIME, Chinese manufacturers have been pumping out these synthetic drug and offering them for sale on the internet.

In a press release from February 2015, Senator Charles Schumer of New York urged for federal legislation that will allow law enforcement agencies to better respond to the influx of synthetic drugs into the country and our communities. Among other things, the law would streamline the process for designating new substances as illegal, allowing officials to keep up in the constant chess match with manufacturers, who continue to formulate new substances in order to evade the law.

People often use synthetic marijuana because it is easier to access and because it is not tested for on most standard drug tests. Also, because it is sold in stores and online and is seemingly legal, many people also believe that it is safer although it isn`t.

The criminalization of marijuana seems to be a factor is causing people to use spice. A large number of the reported ER visit occur in East Harlem and other neighborhood where arrests for marijuana possession are high.

Additionally, areas with relatively harsh penalties for marijuana possession have seen recent increases in the use of synthetic marijuana. In Alabama, where penalties for marijuana possession are some of the harshest in the country, the use of synthetic marijuana has skyrocketed, leading to a public health crisis.

The study mentioned earlier conducted by researchers at NYU also found that most of the young people who used synthetic marijuana were also regular users of natural marijuana; however, 97 percent of users used synthetic marijuana less than 6 times, showing that while marijuana users may experiment with synthetic weed when marijuana is unavailable or seems safer for legal reasons, the negative effects of the synthetic drugs encourage users to discontinue their use after a few times.

With many opponents touting the negative effect marijuana legalization could have on encouraging drug use among young people, maybe it is time to consider that experimentation is a natural part of growing up. Possibly the best course is to be pragmatic and look at what we would rather have kids using, dangerous, synthetic drugs that can cause detrimental health effects and even death—Or, a natural substance that has been used for thousands of years that has never caused a fatal overdose. You be the judge.


The Health Department urges New Yorkers who see synthetic cannabinoids for sale to report this to 311. The Health Department will work with other City agencies to investigate these reports.

For more information about the dangers of synthetic cannabinoids, visit: http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/mental/drug-marijuana-synthetic.shtml


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