For the first time, an overdose of synthetic marijuana has been listed as the sole cause of a death in East Baton Rouge Parish, the Coroner’s Office announced Friday.
The 29-year-old died March 28, and his toxicology report was completed this week.
“The main and only contributor to his death was the synthetic cannabinoid,” said Dr. Beau Clark, the coroner.
The revelation came just a day after the American Association of Poison Control Centers issued a warning about the drugs — also known as mojo, spice and K-2. The AAPCC said poison control centers across the country have been receiving four times as many calls about synthetic marijuana this year as they did during the same period in 2014.
The Baton Rouge area also has seen an uptick.
One hospital in the city treated more than 110 cases in February, said Louisiana Poison Control Director Mark Ryan, though he could not immediately recall which hospital.
His office used to field a call about synthetic marijuana about every other day, but now they get several calls each day.
With most substances, roughly 80 percent of callers contact poison control from home, work or school. But about 95 percent of synthetic marijuana calls come from hospital staff, Ryan said.
He gave an example of how those calls typically begin: “This guy’s gonna tear the emergency room apart.”
Synthetic marijuana emerged around 2009 and has been a plague on doctors, law enforcement and legislators ever since because of its growing popularity and ever-changing chemical structure.
The drug is made by spraying chemicals onto herbal material and is generally smoked, though Ryan said it also can be snorted and injected. Synthetic marijuana is intended to mimic the compound in organic marijuana that produces a high.
However, synthetic and organic marijuana are different.
Ryan said it’s difficult to compare them, because there are more than 300 varieties of synthetic marijuana.
Every time legislators ban one compound, manufacturers tweak the chemical structure to produce a new, unregulated version, some of which have been causing severe medical problems such as seizures. Other side effects, according to the AAPCC, include severe agitation and anxiety, racing heartbeat, psychosis and suicidal thoughts.
“It’s a cat-and-mouse game. It’s confusing, but it’s confusing by design. (Drug manufacturers) want to keep us off-balance,” Ryan said.
Louisiana has adopted a tactic of using emergency rules to allow the governor to ban specific compounds as they are reported by law enforcement and the Department of Health and Hospitals. The most recent ban came in February, on a substance sold as “Blue Nugs.”
Synthetic marijuana’s popularity across Louisiana is centered along the Interstate 10 corridor, including the Lafayette and Baton Rouge areas, Ryan said.
“We began seeing an increase in emergency visits related to synthetic marijuana use in our community last spring, but because there is a lot of variation in the synthetic substances, it remains difficult to provide a specific number of cases. Anecdotally, we continue to frequently see patients in the (emergency department) reporting exposure to synthetic marijuana,” Dr. John Jones, medical director of the Emergency Department at Baton Rouge General Medical Center, wrote in an email to The Advocate.
Much of the research on synthetic marijuana concerns its appeal to adolescents.
According to a 2014 study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, about 5 percent of students in grades eight through 12 reported using synthetic marijuana, higher than the rates for steroids, inhalants, methamphetamine and cocaine. Additionally, only about a quarter to a third of the students in those grades thought there was a “great risk” in trying synthetic marijuana once or twice, the report states.
“I just want people to understand how dangerous this is. … Really, it’s just poison,” said Capital Area Human Services District Executive Director Jan Kasofsky, whose group has launched a campaign called “No More Mojo,” aimed at curbing the use of synthetic marijuana, especially among young people.
Synthetic marijuana is appealing because it’s relatively cheap and has been sold publicly in eye-catching packages, according to Kasofsky and the NIH study. Some users equate a drug being legal with being safe or believe synthetic marijuana is undetectable in drug tests, neither of which is true, according to the AAPCC.
In fact, the same day he confirmed the first death from a synthetic marijuana overdose, Clark, the East Baton Rouge coroner, said his office was waiting for toxicology reports that may implicate the drugs in other recent deaths.
Advocate staff writer Ben Wallace contributed to this report. Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.