Old drug: New dangerous effects

This “spice” product, which is marketed as potpourri, was confiscated by local police. Photo courtesy of the Charlottesville Police Department This “spice” product, which is marketed as potpourri, was confiscated by local police. Photo courtesy of the Charlottesville Police Department

Police say the presence of spice, a form of synthetic marijuana, is not new to Charlottesville or Albemarle County, however, they’re now seeing new behaviors associated with people using the drug.

Charlottesville Police Lieutenant Joe Hatter, who oversees the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement Task Force, says spice has been in the area for the last five to seven years. People use spice to mimic the effects of marijuana, or because they think it won’t show up in drug tests, Hatter says, adding there’s no way to know what’s in any particular spice blend, but ingredients could show up in tests.

“What we’re seeing now is definitely not mimicking marijuana,” Hatter says. “People are walking down the street nude after smoking this.” People who smoke spice have been found disoriented, passed out, sweating profusely, vomiting or convulsing, he adds.

Local police received at least 15 calls last month for suspected spice usage, and the majority of those calls involved people who needed medical attention, Hatter says.

Dr. Chris Holstege, who has been a UVA professor in the school of medicine since 1999, is the director of medical toxicology at UVA Medical Center. He remembers the last large outbreak of synthetic cannabinoid use in 2009. He says patients then were agitated, confused, delirious and combative, and UVA doctors believe the drug induced the first psychotic break for some of the patients.

When Virginia made these products illegal, Holstege says consequently fewer use incidents were reported. It has also made patients more reluctant to tell doctors whether they have used them, so it’s hard for the task force to track how many currently are using the drug. In the first quarter of this year, Holstege says nine cases of synthetic cannabinoid use were reported, followed by an influx of 29 cases in the second quarter of the year. This quarter is on a trajectory for about 60 reported cases, according to Holstege.

Though spice is traditionally known to attract a younger crowd, Hatter says he’s received no reports of people using the drug at the University of Virginia or in local high schools, but rather people in their 20s and 30s near downtown Charlottesville.

When the drug first appeared in the area, Hatter says police found that a synthetic marijuana product was being sold at area convenience stores. After confiscating a product and confronting a clerk at one of the stores, police learned that the clerk didn’t realize what it was. Spice, K2 and other synthetic cannabinoids are often marketed as herbal incense blends or potpourri, making them more dangerous for people who don’t know what they are, Hatter says. People now tend to buy them online, where they’re easy to find, or from someone on the street, according to Hatter.

“The Internet has opened Pandora’s box,” agrees Holstege.

According to Hatter, police have done their best to “crack down” on dealers and users and to get the word out about the dangers of spice, but it may not be going away any time soon.

“Leave it alone,” Hatter says. “Fear it.”

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