Concerns Grow as use of Synthetic Pot Increases

Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on Feb. 5, 2016.
Picked up by the AP wire.

Potential short-term effects of synthetic marijuana can be pretty disturbing.

Just ask New England Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones, who was alleged to have used the substance before a bizarre, shirtless visit to the Foxboro Public Safety Building from his nearby home early on the morning of Jan. 10.

Police described him as scurrying to the back door of police and fire headquarters in search of medical assistance.

Unpredictable side-effects of synthetic marijuana can include psychosis, extreme anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations and confusion, authorities say. Jones was taken to Norwood Hospital for treatment, was released the same day, and later apologized for a “stupid mistake,” though he never admitted to using synthetic marijuana.

Now, state legislators are looking at the substance.

Little is known about the long-term effects of synthetic marijuana, lawmakers say, but faced with a raging opioid epidemic, they say they don’t want to wait and find out.

“More often than not with legislation, you see that it’s reactive, not proactive,” said Rep. David Muradian, R-Grafton, who filed a bill to outlaw the use and sale of synthetic marijuana – or more precisely, synthetic cannabinoids – in Massachusetts.

“Obviously we have the opioid issue and the heroin issue, and unfortunately, while we’re making great strides to help fight that, it’s being a little bit reactive,” Muradian said. “I think this is a great opportunity to get out ahead of this.”

Synthetic marijuana, sometimes referred to as K2 or spice, is a man-made, mind-altering drug produced by spraying a variety of chemical compositions onto herbal-based materials.

Packaged in colorful foil packets, the drugs are often marketed as safe, legal alternatives that produce a similar high to marijuana, despite the potentially jarring side-effects.

Manufacturers of synthetic marijuana often change the chemical composition of their product regularly to side-step regulation, which means the makeup of the drug is generally unknown and no two packets are guaranteed to produce the same effects.

Muradian said synthetic marijuana is more popular in southern states, such as Florida, but has been making its way up the East Coast in recent years.

The dangers of synthetic marijuana recently made national news when New England Patriots player Chandler Jones reportedly sought medical assistance at the Foxboro Police Station early in the morning on Jan. 10 after a bad reaction to the drug.

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration lists 19 substances found in synthetic narcotics on a federal list of controlled substances, but currently there is no legislation in Massachusetts to outlaw the drugs, which are easily sold in gas stations and paraphernalia stores.

Muradian said his proposal would identify some of the specific isomers used in synthetic marijuana and add those chemicals to a list of controlled substances in Massachusetts, thereby making them illegal.

Although manufacturers often change the chemical compositions to avoid such regulation, Muradian said he believes his proposal would be effective in making it more difficult to produce and obtain synthetic marijuana until the Legislature is able to develop a more comprehensive bill.

Muradian said the Massachusetts State Police Crime Lab is working to identify the seven or eight main chemicals used across all known brands of the drug, but that the process will take time before it can be added to the legislation.

Enacting the proposal now would give law enforcement officers a head-start in removing the drug from Massachusetts streets, Muradian said.

Possession of synthetic narcotics would carry a penalty of up to five years in prison or 2 1/2 years in jail, a fine of $500 to $5,000, or both.

Attleboro Detective Lt. Tim Cook said the city saw a spike in synthetic marijuana use a few years ago, but was able to curb the epidemic by passing a city ordinance blocking the sale and use of synthetic agents.

The ordinance outlaws more than 22 chemicals and enacts a fine of $300 for possession, sale or public display of the drug.

Cook said the ordinance acted as a “very effective preventative measure” in Attleboro, and although he no longer believes synthetic marijuana is a major problem in the city, he supports the efforts to outlaw the drug statewide.

“I am in support of any legislation that is aimed at keeping this dangerous chemical out of the hands of children and other citizens,” Cook said.

Rep. Betty Poirier, D-North Attleboro, along with former state Rep. George Ross, R-Attleboro, co-sponsored similar legislation outlawing the use of synthetic drugs known as “bath salts” in Massachusetts in 2011. Bath salts also were said to mimic the effects of marijuana.

She said she supports the new legislation “whole-heartedly.”

“(The drug) is deceptive and it’s not what it claims to be,” Poirier said. “I think when people understand it and all of the dangers it presents to our community, they will be very happy to support this bill.”

The bill is now before the House Committee on Rules, where, if reported out favorably, it will be assigned to a new committee and receive a date for a public hearing.

“This proposal will allow Massachusetts to get out ahead of the curve when it comes to fighting the never-ending issue of illegal drugs,” Muradian said. “Now, it’s the beginning – it’s not the end of this – and we’re certainly pursuing making it a lot more comprehensive. But, this is what they really need now.”

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