Monday, April 29, 2013

Scooby Snax for sale: why synthetic marijuana laws hard to enforce


It's called Scooby Snax, but it's not a dog treat. Experts say it's synthetic marijuana, a dangerous drug kids are smoking.

That's one of several types of fake marijuana FOX 5 found openly sold at gas stations and convenience stores, while federal and state bans have been hard to enforce.

The products are labeled as potpourri but laced with chemicals that mimic the effects of pot. A quick search on YouTube and you see kids and young adults smoking it and getting high. "Scooby Snax is one of my favorites," proclaims one reviewer on YouTube.

The federal government outlawed synthetic marijuana two years ago but Fox5 cameras didn't have a hard time finding Scooby Snax or a number of other products identified by experts as synthetic marijuana. There was dopey and bizzaro. Others go by names like Joker and the more commonly known K-2 and Spice. Duane Canter and his wife discovered their teenage son using it. "He felt so ill and paralyzed. He was out with some friends in the back of a car and had no feeling in his legs," Canter said.

The couple began picketing stores that sold it and campaigned to get the city of Frederick to outlaw it. In the meantime they went to stores warning they'd go after anyplace that sold to their son. "They would keep it underneath and they'd hand you a book and there was a list of all the different synthetic marijuana available and you'd pick what you want and they sold it to you," said Canter.

Earlier this month, a 15-year old in Loudoun County ended up in critical condition after overdosing on the synthetic drug. His mom said he bought it at a convenience store. "When I went in the beginning he don't recognize me first of all, after that he was so weak he couldn't walk," said Francisco Zegarra-Rodriguez.

Federal law makes it illegal but states must prosecute in local courts and need their own laws to do that. Virginia made synthetic marijuana illegal in 2011 but attempts in the District of Columbia failed. A ban passed this month in Maryland and takes effect in October. Maryland secretary of health and mental hygiene, Joshua Sharfstein said the synthetic nature of the drug makes it tricky. "The challenge is really knowing whether something is illegal. It's sometimes hard to pick it up. Sometimes it's not on the label. You have to actually do a chemical analysis to figure out what's going on," Sharfstein said.

Manufacturers continually change the chemical compounds, known as cannibinoids, making it easier to skirt the law and harder for police to enforce. Scooby Snax is now sold in a second generation and the package claims is "legal" under Florida law. But doctors warn it's not any less dangerous.

In Virginia, the first year of the ban, the state's lab tested 468 samples of synthetic marijuana. Less than a quarter contained actual banned chemicals. This year the state added more illegal compounds to its list and this month the federal government did the same. Still poison control centers nationwide report calls for overdoses in the last three years more than doubled. "It's not just one substance. It's potentially the collection of many hundreds or even more different substances, many of which have never been tested in humans before," Sharfstein explained.

One online distributor, who sells a variety of these potpourri or incense products denied they are illegal. In a statement e-mailed to Fox5, Incense Center said "Our products do not contain any substances banned by the DEA. They do not contain any chemicals that get you "high" and we specify to all of our customers that they are not for human consumption. They are simply novelty potpourri products."

Meanwhile, these types of products labeled as incense or potpourri are blamed for several deaths nationwide after people have smoked it. Patients show up in the emergency room confused, agitated hallucinating, blood pressure elevated, heart racing. Sometimes it takes multiple people to restrain them. In the emergency room at Medstar Washington Hospital Center doctors say they see at least one case involving synthetic marijuana every day and one of the biggest problems is, there's no way to test for it. "One of the reasons that I think people may try to find this product somewhat attractive is that you can't find it in a urine drug screen," said Dr. Bill Frohana, chairman of emergency medicine for the hospital.

When a patient comes in who has overdosed on synthetic marijuana, sometimes they are able to tell doctors what they ingested but sometimes they can't. In those cases doctors often times have to do their own detective work based on the symptoms. As doctors see more cases, synthetic marijuana overdoses have become easier to spot. "The altered mental status, the fast heart rate and you put the pieces of the puzzle together," Dr. Frohana explained.

The name itself, synthetic marijuana, can also be deceptive. People may believe it's similar to natural marijuana but doctors say it's far worse. "When you think about what it can do to the heart, what it can do to the blood pressure as well as cause seizures then you can kind of figure out that yes maybe this is something that could be fatal to people," Dr. Frohana said.

Usually doctors can treat the immediate symptoms, but no one knows all the short or long term dangers. "Kids need to know that just because there may be a cartoon on the package doesn't mean it's safe, just because it's for sale in a store doesn't mean it's safe that there are products out there that can really do harm," Sharfstein warned.

In the meantime, frustrated parents are left wondering what to do if the laws can't prevent synthetic marijuana from being sold. "Why does it take kids dying to get something banned, when you know it's not for human consumption?" lamented Canter.

His son survived his scare but synthetic marijuana is not going away. One survey found it's the second most popular drug of choice for high schoolers and according to the Centers for Disease Control one in nine seniors have tried it. Despite federal and state bans, FOX 5 found stores still selling it, which means kids can get their hands on it too.

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