For several months, students at Howard University’s school of communications have been writing stories for The RootDC about a range of local and national issues. The students have written about college students struggling to pay rising tuitions after their parents had lost jobs and homes to foreclosures and the impact of funding cuts to public school arts programs in poor communities, among other issues. Today The RootDC is publishing the story below by Riki Lawal about national efforts to crack down on synthetic marijuana.

The recent legalization of marijuana in several states by voter referendum may be the clearest indication of a softening of public opinion against the once very controversial drug.  But there is increasing attention now being given to its artificial counterpart, synthetic marijuana-- a reflection that the relatively new designer drug has become the latest target in the war on drugs.



Spearheaded by community activists, state lawmakers, and political leaders such as Del.  Eleanor Holmes Norton, efforts to ban the sale and use of synthetic marijuana nationally has been on Congress’s radar since the drug was first detected in the U.S. by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2008. President Obama signed legislation banning synthetic drugs last July. The DC City Council followed suit last December.

Synthetic marijuana is commonly known as “Spice” or “K2” and is often sold in smoke specialty shops and local neighborhood corner stores and can be purchased with no age restrictions. It has become increasingly popular among minors and young adults.

"Basically, as you talk to the different agencies involved in these cases, you're finding more and more availability to children," Del. Ted Sophocleus, D-Anne Arundel County, told the Washington Examiner earlier this year. He sponsored one of four bills in the Maryland General Assembly criminalizing the sale of synthetic marijuana.

The war on designer drugs has been on the rise in the DMV area. While Virginia and D.C. have joined other states that outlawed synthetic marijuana, Maryland lawmakers are fighting, county by county, to criminalize the production, possession, and dispersal of the drug throughout the state.  Earlier this month the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation outlawing the major chemical components of synthetic marijuana, classifying them as controlled substances.

According to the National Conference of state legislatures, at least 40 states have banned the sale and distribution of synthetic cannabinoids and several more are considering similar proposed measures. Prior to 2010 synthetic marijuana was not controlled by any state or by the federal government, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Britain, Germany, Poland, France, and Canada also have banned synthetic marijuana, according to an FBI law enforcement bulletin.

Following the lead of other municipal police departments, D.C. police have conducted raids on suspected drug outlets and seized large and small amounts of synthetic marijuana from high schools, smoke specialty shops, and private residences to prevent the spread of the substance locally.

Despite its name, synthetic marijuana is made with natural herbs but is sprayed with synthetic chemicals that when consumed act on the same receptors in the brain as natural marijuana and mimic the effects of regular marijuana. While some people don’t consider the chemically enhanced drug a “real” drug, it certainly causes real health problems. It sent an estimated 11,406 users to the emergency room in 2010, according to a recent report by the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN). Some 75 percent of users hospitalized are between the ages of 12 and 29. 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse released survey results in Dec 2011 reporting that one in nine high school seniors had used “Spice” or “K2”, “making synthetic marijuana the second most commonly used illicit drug, after marijuana, among high school seniors.”

 The Office of National Drug Control Policy has labeled manmade drug products like synthetic marijuana and bath salts a rapidly emerging threat to public safety and health with at least 38 states stretching from New York to South Carolina to the nation’s capital banning the sale of these products.

Like many young people who blindly experiment with the substance clearly labeled “not for human consumption,” Antwan Gates is no stranger to the harmful effects of the synthetic hallucinogen.  

A few years ago while at a high school party, Gates, now 20 years old and a sophomore at the University of West Georgia, accepted an offer from two former classmates to smoke Spice for the first time. Gates was admittedly “just looking for a high” and he initially felt euphoric, but his good trip quickly turned bad. 

“At first, it felt very good. It felt like a high I had never experienced before,” Gates recalled. “But then my heart started to beat very vigorously and I felt short of breath.  Every time I attempted to stand I had to sit back down. For the next three to four hours I felt like I was on the verge of a heart attack. My friends had to take care of me. I felt dizzy and nauseous the entire time.”  

As a once frequent smoker of natural pot, Gates considers so-called fake marijuana far more harmful than the real thing.

“Yes, I think it should be banned because I felt like I had a near death experience that way,” he said. “I feel like it was highly dangerous cause I didn’t even smoke that much. Imagine if I‘d smoked three grams, maybe I wouldn’t be here!” 

Gates might be on to something. The American Association of Poison Control Centers receiveda total of 9,865 calls regarding synthetic marijuana abuse in 2010 and 2011. Similarly, the number of calls to poison control centers concerning consumption of bath salts in 2011 was 20 times higher than in 2010, skyrocketing from 304 to 6,138. 

Outraged citizens have decided to take matters into their own hands. Last December, on the same day the DC Council banned the sale of synthetic marijuana, a community-orchestrated strike was held outside a local Exxon station located on Benning Road NE,  within walking distance of two high schools and an elementary school. The store was known to sell various types of synthetic marijuana products, including a brand called “Scooby Snax.” Congresswoman Norton joined the protesters and, after much debate with the store manager, got him to promise to stop selling any K2 products in accordance with the recently passed federal ban on its distribution in the District. The manager also agreed to discard the K2 he had in stock.

Norton, dubbed a “Drug Warrior” by Roll Call after her intervention with the store owner, was pleased with the outcome of the protest and the DC Council vote. She publicly thanked the council for supporting the ban and pointedly noted that the intention of the law was not to jail teenagers drawn to the colorful packaging and playful names on the drug packages.

“The primary purpose of the law is to stop the sale of K2 to kids as young as 13 at gas stations, corner stores, and other locations,” she said in a press release following the protest. 

“As long as K2 was legal to buy and sell under District law, many of the city’s most vulnerable young people were in danger of the many effects of the drug, which have been compared to LSD and have caused psychotic episodes or other serious problems that are sending youngsters to emergency rooms."