PATTERSON — Law enforcement has seen as many as 10 to 15 St. Mary Parish residents end up in the hospital in a single day after smoking what is commonly referred to as “synthetic marijuana,” a number more than 10 times the current rate in Lafayette, authorities say.
Whether for seizures, psychosis or kidney failure, the product — an herblike material sprayed with chemicals and smoked for a high — induces symptoms nothing like the plant it was created to mimic, said Capt. John Kahl, who heads the criminal and narcotics divisions of the St. Mary Parish Sheriff’s Office.
“And some of these kids are being tricked into thinking it’s OK,” Kahl said.
Kahl was the featured speaker Thursday at the DARE Clergy Breakfast, an annual event organized by the parish’s Red Ribbon Committee that pairs clergy members with social services workers for networking and discussion.
Representatives spoke to the crowd about their social specialties, such as the parish Council on Aging’s “Meals on Wheels” service, which is hurting for funds, according to Executive Director Beverly Domengeaux.
Craig Mathews, CEO of PediaKare de Louisiana, shared information about his company’s nonresidential health care facilities for special needs children in Franklin and Lafayette. And Donna Ruffin, who administers family services through the 16th Judicial District Court, detailed her department’s efforts to intervene with troubled kids before they end up in the criminal justice system.
Kahl’s presentation, however, drew gasps, groans and concerns from the 60 or so in attendance as he detailed the dangers of consuming the addictive chemical and the challenges of enforcing its illegality.
“Every group is using it. We’ve seen it used by kids as young as 9 years old,” Kahl said, causing a collective muttering throughout the crowd. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything that’s crossed so many barriers.”
The chemical, a white powder dissolved in liquid and sprayed onto organic matter, was first synthesized at Clemson University in 1995 to study the effects of marijuana on brain activity.
It gained popularity about a decade ago when resurrected overseas and marketed as “legal” weed, as its chemical makeup tends to outpace the law, and it’s often consumed to get around urine tests required by potential employers or the court system, Kahl said.
No single drug test covers the more than 100 versions of the compound.
“We’ve had kids go to the hospital in the last couple of months who had admitted to smoking, but their tests came out negative,” said Sandy Nolan, an administrator with Morgan City’s juvenile court who operates youth mentor programs for at-risk kids.
About a dozen attendees stuck around after the breakfast, gathering around Kahl for a show-and-tell as he pulled a colorful baggy labeled “Scooby Snax” from a cardboard file box.
Synthetic cannabinoids are branded as potpourri and packaged in colorful bags like that one, which depicted an image of the familiar canine character with his tongue hanging from his mouth.
“It’s even a litter problem,” said Nolan, who described how kids subjected to litter abatement are picking up “nothing but” the same kinds of baggies Kahl had on display.
Although symptoms of synthetic cannabinoid use appear particularly severe in St. Mary Parish, which has a population of about 53,500, it’s a problem for law enforcement officials statewide.
Narcotics Capt. Drew David, of the Vermilion Parish Sheriff’s Office, said the lack of testing available makes it difficult to make arrests after the drug is seized, but deputies there are trained to recognize behavior associated with synthetic cannabinoid use.
“The problem that we see is most people, when they hear ‘legal weed,’ they think it’s going to have the same effects as cannabis, and it absolutely doesn’t,” David said. “It’s a chemical. It’s not like THC (the active ingredient in marijuana). It does not have a mellowing effect.”
The Department of Health and Hospitals enacted an emergency ban Oct. 29 on a new structural makeup of the chemical after about 125 emergency room visits related to its consumption were reported. A week later, the Lafayette City-Parish Council enacted a parishwide ban on any misbranded products resembling synthetic cannabinoids.
Emergency room visits related to synthetic cannabinoid use since then are averaging about one a day in Lafayette, Police Chief Jim Craft said last week at a narcotics news conference.
Lafayette’s Metro Narcotics Task Force has seized more than $4.2 million worth of synthetic cannabinoid products since 2010, Capt. John Babin said.
“I try to put the message out there that this stuff is dangerous,” Babin said. “It will kill you.”
Note: The first paragraph of this story was changed Nov. 18, 2014, to reflect that law enforcement has seen as many as 10 to 15 St. Mary Parish residents hospitalized in a day after consuming synthetic cannabinoids, although the number is not a daily constant.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook.