'Fake' pot appears in Juneau

Posted: Sunday, June 27, 2010

Another product being smoked by young people is generating concern among parents and local officials.

Synthetic marijuana, a legal product frequently sold as incense on the Internet and at "head" shops, can cause hallucinations, increased heart rate and nausea, among other symptoms. The herb mixes, which sell for up to $55 a package, are sprayed with a chemical that mimics the high of marijuana.

A Juneau man in his 20s was admitted Monday to Bartlett Regional Hospital with hallucinations, severe vomiting, shallow breathing and an inability to walk after smoking an incense product with friends. He was released the next day.

It appears to be the first case in Juneau requiring emergency medical treatment. Hospital officials and the Juneau Police Department had never heard of synthetic marijuana before being questioned about it by the Empire.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers issued a warning about the dangers of synthetic marijuana products in March, after a center in Missouri reported 40 cases involving the substance within a few months.

One researcher conducting a university study on the products' effects told The Associated Press he had seen more than 30 cases of Missouri teenagers having hallucinations, severe agitation, elevated heart rates, vomiting, seizures and other reactions. No deaths have been reported.

The herbs smoked in Monday's incident are marketed under the brand name Red Dawn. Other brands include K2, Space, Gold Spice, Dragon Spice, Voodoo Spice, Hush and Summit. They look like potpourri and come in a foil package with a brightly colored label or a small plastic tub with a flip-top lid.

They are not cheap, selling for up to $54.95 per gram, more than the going street rate for the real stuff, according to authorities. Synthetic marijuana does not show up on drug tests, potentially making it attractive to people subject to random drug tests at work or school.

Packages don't list all the ingredients but typically list herbs such as damaina, mugwort and red clover, and indicate it's "not for human consumption" or "for use as an incense only." Some warn users not to drive or operate heavy machinery.

What's not written on the packaging is that the herbs are sprayed with a synthetic version of THC, the ingredient in pot that produces its intoxicating effect. The chemical, believed to be manufactured in Asia for these products, is suspected to cause the reported illnesses.

The Oregon Poison Control Center, which handles Alaska's calls, had not received any from this state about synthetic marijuana as of Friday afternoon. Department Director Sandy Giffin said centers in other parts of the nation have seen a significant increase in calls but so far it's been heard of less on the West Coast.

She said officials are still learning about the drug. "It's a challenge to keep ahead of the next thing people are trying," she said.

Last year, Juneau parents and community leaders formed a drug task force and passed mandatory drug testing for high school student athletes, as well as a voluntary program for all students, after teens' use of OxyContin skyrocketed.

Synthetic marijuana is legal in the U.S. but has been banned in Russia and most of Europe. The AP last month reported that nearly a dozen states were debating, or had already passed, a ban on K2, one of the more popular products.

Alaska did not take up the issue during the most recent session. Lawmakers in 2006 and 2008 considered but did not pass a ban on Salvia, a natural plant grown in Mexico that also produces a marijuana-like high.

An employee at a local shop that sells herbs said he had heard young people discuss synthetic marijuana but the shop wasn't seeing a large spike in interest in the products, which are also widely available on the Internet.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.

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