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A Quarter-Ounce of Prevention

Callers have flooded the Texas Poison Center this year with reports of chest pains and increased heart rates because of a synthetic drug that mimics marijuana. Some cities are already taking steps to outlaw the substance, and lawmakers will propose a statewide ban in the next legislative session.

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Callers have flooded the Texas Poison Center this year with reports of chest pains and increased heart rates because of a synthetic drug that mimics marijuana. Last year, fewer than a dozen calls came in about the substance, called fake pot or K2, but in 2010 that number has spiked to nearly 250. Some cities are already taking steps to outlaw the drug, and state lawmakers plan to propose a statewide ban in the next legislative session — but they don't expect passing it to be easy.

“It’s a concern for us, and we’re taking a hard look at it,” Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, says of K2.

One of the challenges that lawmakers will face in drafting a bill to ban synthetic marijuana is controlling the creation of chemical compounds that mimic real marijuana’s effects. Currently, five versions of synthetic THC have been identified in fake pot, some of which were created by slightly varying the chemical structure of real THC. Synthetic THC, which causes the high from fake marijuana, is commonly sprayed on dried herbs and smoked.

“There are already a number of different formulas — all a chemist has to do is tweak one molecule and you have a new formula which is not covered by the law,” says Jane Maxwell, a senior research scientist at the University of Texas.

Some users prefer synthetic marijuana, which is often sold as incense online and in smoke specialty and convenience stories, to the real thing because it does not show up on drug tests. But reports of adverse side effects like increased heart rates, hallucinations and seizures have lawmakers trying to regulate the substance.

“I have people writing me e-mails and sending me letters from all over the state saying that this is a problem in their communities," says state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who is working with scientists and drug policy experts to draft a bill to ban K2. “Some of the effects are devastating, some even worse than the effects of marijuana, and yet it is legal.”

A UT student who tried synthetic marijuana a few months ago to “relieve stress” says he had few negative symptoms except for brief nausea. But his roommate vomited. “I'm against using [real] marijuana because of the potential consequences," including legal troubles and loss of employment, says the student, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I enjoyed the high, but I've only used it once afterwards. Personally, I enjoy runner's high a little more.” 

Spurred on by a sudden spike in use, at least nine states have already banned synthetic marijuana. Dallas and Plano are among the Texas cities that have banned it.

To protect against THC copycats, federal and state law regulate substances that are chemically similar and produce similar effects to that of an illegal drug like marijuana. Even so, both Shapiro and scientists believe a detailed law specifying the exact chemicals outlawed would be more effective.

Finding an appropriate penalty could make or break the legislation to ban synthetic marijuana, judging by previous attempts to ban salvia divinorum, a natural but legal hallucinogenic herb. In 2007, state Rep. Charles "Doc" Anderson, R-Waco, introduced a House bill to regulate salvia divinorum and its concentrate by penalizing those who possess it with at least a state jail felony. Anderson's bill died in committee because of a disagreement about the penalty. Two more bills with lesser penalties that were introduced during the same session also died.  

“[Shapiro] definitely needs to go forward with [a synthetic marijuana bill], and we would be very helpful with it in the House side,” Anderson says.

Another salvia bill introduced by state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, in 2009, which made the sale of salvia to individuals under 18 a Class C misdemeanor, also failed during the pile-up of bills as lawmakers in the House talked to death the controversial voter ID bill in the final days of the legislative session. The same salvia bill will be introduced during the upcoming session, Anderson says. 

Shapiro has not decided the penalty for possession of synthetic marijuana but says she recognizes the importance of "creating one of equal importance to real marijuana."

But even as talk of bans has gained wide attention, there are some who believe criminalizing the substance is inappropriate for treating a public health concern. “We have no position on K2,” says Jose Medina of American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which opposed the salvia ban. “But we feel that at a time of budget crises, we should have other matters to think about than adding another crime to the criminal code.”

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