By Nick BeJeaux
While heroin use and overdoses are still on the rise in Baton Rouge, the city is also seeing a spike in the use of synthetic cannabinoids, more commonly referred to as bath salts (same chemicals without botanicals) and, incorrectly, synthetic marijuana.
According to East Baton Rouge Coroner Dr. William Clark’s report delivered at a Capital Area Human Services press conference, this spike is not sudden and has been building up for years.
“It made a resurgence several years back when bath salts became popular; I don’t want you to think it started in 2014,” he said.
While no deaths directly attributed to synthetics have been officially determined by the city, they can cause permanent damage to the heart and kidneys, which can accelerate existing diseases or create them where they did not exist before. However, the intense psychosis, paranoia, hallucinations and panic attacks they have been proven to cause has lead to the deaths of users and non-users alike.
“There usually is an intermediary,” said Clark. “In 2012 we did work a case where the individual historically stated that they had used synthetic marijuana prior to death. But the toxicology, however, did not reveal that. That doesn’t mean they didn’t use it, just that our tests at the time didn’t pick it up. The person ultimately died of trauma from a pedestrian v. vehicle scenario.”
A more extreme case is currently being prosecuted in Livingston Parish. There, 31-year-old Jefferey Reynolds is facing charges of feticide and attempted murder after cutting his unborn child from his wife’s womb while under the influence of bath salts. Reynolds has pleaded not-guilty by reason of insanity, a plea that is currently under examination.
The psychosis-inducing effects of these chemicals recieved national attention in the so-called “Miami Zombie” incident. A naked man under the influence of bath salts and other substances actually ate a homeless man’s face. Cops had to shoot the guy four times before he stopped…eating.
Because of the danger these substances create, lawmakers have been attempting for years to get them under control. However, because these substances are unique to their individual manufacturer controlling them is like playing whack-a-mole. Essentially, chemist can add a carbon chain or swap one ion for another, and all of a sudden an illegal substance becomes legal while losing none of its effects.
“These drugs cause psychosis that may or may not resolve itself. I cannot understand why someone would willingly take this unless they’re a marijuana user or they have a curiosity about synthetics. Still, it doesn’t necessarily cause euphoria. What it causes in people is rapid heart rate, kidney failure, hearing and seeing voices. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“As long as the people making this are making money, they will continue to do it; this is a multi-billion dollar industry – it’s supply and demand,” said Rebecca Nugent, Chemistry Manager at the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab. “The other problem is that they are continually manipulating these molecules into different forms. Not only are they creating more dangerous molecules, they creating ones with more potency. They are looking less and less like natural THC, so the adverse effects are just going to continue to increase.”
Mojo, Spice, Voodoo and G6 are a few of the brands of synthetics on the market. Some, if not all, are labeled “not for human consumption,” though that isn’t exactly sincere. Clark has his own theory as to why these labels are ignored, but admits it’s still difficult to wrap his head around.
“These drugs cause psychosis that may or may not resolve itself,” he said. “I cannot understand why someone would willingly take this unless they’re a marijuana user or they have a curiosity about synthetics. Still, it doesn’t necessarily cause a euphoria. What it causes in people is rapid heart rate, kidney failure, hearing and seeing voices. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
If curiosity and the fact that these substances are technically legal are the major draw for synthetics, one would think that legalizing marijuana would help make the problem go away. Not so.
“Colorado has legalized marijuana and they’re still having problems with the synthetic stuff,” said Nugent. “So apparently, legalizing is not the solution to this, but that’s a whole different ball game.”
Clark revealed that law enforcement is already taking steps to keep these substances off the street, namely taking down distributors and educating the public. As Nugent said, this problem will be very difficult to address with laws since new laws will have to created every time a compound is changed. Both she and Clark agree that public awareness is the only way Baton Rouge’s problem with synthetics can be brought under control.