The most dangerous drug you've never heard of
Banned by the General Assembly, awaiting the governor's expected signature, synthetic marijuana remains on the market in convenience stores throughout Rhode Island.
According to Alan Machado, a liaison at Riverwood Mental Health in Warren, "they can't get this stuff off the market fast enough." Marketed as a potpourri and targeted to kids with scents and flavors like watermelon and strawberry, and names like "Scooby Snax" (pictured), synthetic marijuana has been around for 15 years, but has become a major problem in recent months. Package instructions warn against smoking or ingesting the product, but the word about its intoxicating effects is out.
Riverwood provides psychiatric case management for people suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other mental issnesses on the severe end of the spectrum, a population particularly susceptible to the effects of this drug. "Synthetic marijuana intensifies preexisting psychosis and causes psychosis in previously asymptiomatic patients," says Machado. "But what is really frightening is that it actually changes users' brain chemistry so that they no longer respond to their medicinal therapies."
Also known as "monkey weed", "K2", and "spice", the product is a mixture of plant-based products that have been sprayed with psychotropic, and hallucinogenic drugs. Compared to PCP and "Angel Dust", it was originally developed by Dr. John W. Huffmanm a researcher with the National Institute for Drug Abuse, but it was never tested on humans, and never approved by the FDA. Huffman has become one of the staunchest supporters of efforts to ban these products, comparing their use to playing Russian Roulette.
The use of synthetic marijuana has led to psychiatric hospitalization in many cases, some locally, and is especially popular with people on probation, as although testing exists, it is imperfect and not routinely applied.
Rhode Island is one of the last states to officially ban the substance, but even once the legislation has been delivered to Governor Chaffee's desk for his signature, there will be a period of time before it is off the market for good. In the meantime, parents should be aware of this product if they come across colorful foil packets labeled potpourri in their children's possession. For kids struggling with addiction issues, help is available through organizations like CODAC, with offices in East Providence (401/434-4999) and Newport (401/846-4150.)
"Until they get this stuff off the streets, parents need to stay vigilant," says Machado. "This is one of the most destructive drugs we have seen in a long time."