Synthetic Marijuana: Is it the Next Heroin?

Saturday, August 16, 2014


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Are synthetic drugs posing the next major health threat to Rhode Island?

The Governor of New Hampshire just declared a state of emergency related to over 40 overdoses in the state as the result the use of synthetic cannabinoids.  Community leaders in Worcester, Massachusetts are fighting to eradicate the drugs referred to as "synthetic marijuana" from the city.

Rhode Island signed into law legislation in both 2013 and 2014 to target unregulated substances including synthetic cannaboids to the state's list of schedule 1 controlled substances, but the Rhode Island State Police say that they continue to see the dangerous drug in as much prevalence on the streets as before the attempts to address it. 

"It's probably close to the same, it might be just slightly harder to get," said Rhode Island State Police Sergeant Chris Schram, of the ability to obtain synthetic drugs in the state currently.   "Some store owners understood they shouldn't be selling it following the laws, but others know what they're doing.  They won't display it, but they'll still have it to sell.  If they can make cash on it, they will. "

Rhode Island continues to combat accidental drug overdose deaths in the state -- as of August 8 there have been 127 apparent (95 confirmed) accidental drug overdose deaths according to the Department of Health, who says that "many of these deaths are directly related to the use of fentanyl and heroin, which are opioids."

Schram said of the use of synthetic drugs in the state, "People don't want to hear why it's now a schedule I drug, meaning it has no medical purpose with high addiction potential.  But if I was going to educate people, I'd say you can be fine 9 times out of 10, but it's that tenth time that's the problem."

Combating Synthetics

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According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), synthetic marijuana is “a wide variety of herbal mixtures that produce experiences similar to marijuana (cannabis) and that are marketed as ‘safe,’ legal alternatives to that drug.”

While synthetic marijuana offers its users some of the same mind-altering effects that traditional marijuana does – the chemicals used in synthetic marijuana mimic THC – it is also known to cause a variety of damaging side effects including anxiety, vomiting, seizures, erratic behavior, raised blood pressure, hallucinations, and depression and suicidal thoughts.

"The street name is monkey -- mad monkey, sexy monkey, and angry monkey," said Schram.  "When we get information on a store that has it, we'll make an attempt to buy through an informant or undercover buyers."

While it is being dubbed "synthetic marijuana" by such groups as the NIDA, pro-marijuana legalization groups have taken issue with it being called that.

"This stuff isn't really synthetic "marijuana" -- it's a bunch of random chemicals sprayed on some random herbs or plants," said Jared Moffat, Director of Regulate Rhode Island.  "Calling this "synthetic marijuana" is a bit like calling methamphetamine "synthetic coffee." 

"It's an entirely different substance than marijuana," said Mason Tvert, Director of Communications with the Marijuana Policy Project. "It's suggesting it's somehow associated with marijuana.  It's not.  It's some random crap.  There are two things to know -- this isn't marijuana, and marijuana is much less harmful."

"It's a convenient thing to say that it produces a similar sensation to marijuana, but what does that even mean?  People use marijuana for different purposes and have different experiences -- some do it to have fun, other to relieve pain, others to fall asleep," said Tvert.  "There's no similarity."

Prosecution on the Record

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Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin said that the synthetic drugs are "alarming and deadly" -- and a new frontier on the war on drugs. 

"Since the General Assembly passed, and the Governor signed into law, the bill filed on behalf of Attorney General Kilmartin to ban synthetic cathinones and synthetic cannabinoids (otherwise known as “bath salts” and synthetic marijuana), there have been several arrests by local and state law enforcement of individuals that were charged with possession and possession with intent to deliver," said Emily Martineau with the Office of Attorney General in Rhode Island. 

"There are currently approximately 18 felony cases pending before the Office for prosecution. To date, there have been two individuals who have pled to charges of possession with intent to deliver synthetic cannabinoids and were sentenced to 8 years with 14 months to serve, the remainder suspended with probation, which is comparable with other first time felony drug offenses," continued Martineau.

"We are seeing in the courtroom that judges understand the dangerousness of these synthetic drugs, and are treating them with the same serious nature as other Schedule I narcotics."

“The growing availability and use of synthetic drugs in our society, especially among young people, is alarming and deadly,” said Attorney General Kilmartin. “Synthetic drugs are the new frontier in the war on drugs. Addressing synthetic drug use by our youth and getting these drugs off convenience stores shelves has been a top priority for my office. The alleged illegal activity of selling these drugs over the counter by these individuals is akin to selling cocaine or heroin on the street corner.  With the new law banning the manufacture and sale of these drugs, police and prosecutors now have the tools to rid our community of this illegal activity."


Related Slideshow: Marijuana Use in the New England States

According to data collected by the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, New Englanders are among the nation's top marijuana users in the country.  See how the indivdual states compare in the slides below:

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6. Maine

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 12.45%

National Rank: 13th most

Possession Laws: Decriminalized (2.5 ounces or less)

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5. Connecticut

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 12.50%

National Rank: 12th most

Possession Laws: Decriminalized (less than 0.5 ounce)

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4. Massachusetts

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 14.19%

National Rank: 5th most

Possession Laws: Decriminalized (1.0 ounce or less)

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3. New Hampshire

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 14.60%

National Rank: 4th most

Possession Laws: Medical Use Only

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2. Rhode Island

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 14.85%

National Rank: 3rd most

Possession Laws: Decriminalized (1.0 ounce or less)

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1. Vermont

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 14.90%

National Rank: 2nd most

Possession Laws: Decriminalized (1.0 ounce or less)


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