Synthetic marijuana is illegal to use in Louisiana, but it’s becoming the new drug of choice — exceeding cocaine — because many users think it’s a safe, modified version of marijuana. It’s not, say law enforcement and health officials.

The chemical compounds sprayed on grass clippings or some other smokable plant to create a cannabis-like high change faster than the law can keep up.

“It’s not a drug. This is a poison,” said Dr. Beau Clark, East Baton Rouge Parish coroner. “It’s some kind of synthetically made chemical that can be anything.”

Calls to the Louisiana Poison Control Center about synthetic marijuana have increased in recent months. The Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care Center reported a disturbing rise in calls from young veterans experiencing psychotic episodes after using it.

Four months into the year, there already had been 200 incidents at Baton Rouge hospitals.

Hospital emergency room visits after use have increased considerably, with problems including bleeding in the brain, increased heart rate and blood pressure that can lead to strokes and paralysis. Then there’s the aggressive, hallucinogenic psychotic behavior linked to the compounds.

For instance, Baton Rouge police arrested Charles Dumas in the beating of his son’s dog with a brick — causing skull fragments to fly — after smoking “mojo” or synthetic marijuana. Emergency Medical Services took Dumas to Baton Rouge General Medical Center — Mid-City for treatment.

During the past couple months, “Baton Rouge General Mid-City has had an epidemic,” said Laura Richey, president of the Louisiana chapter of the American Academy of Emergency Physicians.

Richey recalled a patient in Lutcher who died of cardiac arrest. She said she later found out from law enforcement authorities that the man had been using synthetic marijuana that had triggered an asthma attack. He had been using an inhaler all day because he was in respiratory distress, she said.

In the New Orleans area, Dr. Mark Rice said the patients he sees in emergency rooms are unpredictable, aggressive and psychotic.

“Each ingestion is different,” Rice said. “Patients have told me they have smoked it before and not had a bad reaction, but then I see them.”

Dr. Mark Ryan, executive director of the Poison Control Center, said the product is supposed to act like marijuana but has more far-reaching effects.

Physicians and emergency room personnel have been calling the Poison Control Center as the drug’s prevalence increased because of the unusual reactions they have been seeing in patients as young as 12 and as old as 72.

“There are over 100 of these synthetic cannabinoids right now. We are still chasing our tail. It’s not a drip. It’s still a stream of these things coming out,” Ryan said. “They (chemical labs overseas) are altering molecules, chemical structure.

“You really don’t know what you are going to get. You could make a monster. ... It’s never been tested on rats, never been tested on anything.”

The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids recently identified synthetic marijuana as the third most abused substance by U.S. high schoolers — behind alcohol and marijuana.

At a recent behavioral health collaborative meeting, Linda Lamendola, with Ascension Parish schools, said a few isolated instances occurred at parish high schools last school year. In one instance, a student had “an awful response to using it, having seizure-like behaviors,” she said.

“In 2009, we didn’t even know the stuff existed,” Rebecca Nugent said. “Since 2010, it’s become increasingly more popular.”

Nugent is chemistry manager at the State Police Crime Lab, which tests evidence as part of law enforcement investigations.

At the lab, synthetic marijuana — called cannabinoids — will surpass cocaine this year in the evidence submitted for testing as part of law enforcement investigations.

In 2010, synthetic marijuana ranked 10th on the list of drugs submitted for testing. Real marijuana, the plant, led the pack, followed by cocaine.

In 2013, synthetic marijuana ranked third with 850 positive tests, behind 1,282 cases of cocaine and 6,782 items testing positive for real marijuana.

During the first five months of 2014, 3,093 items have tested positive for marijuana, 584 for cocaine and 800 for cannabinoids.

State law changes every time the crime lab identifies a new compound in synthetic marijuana so that it too can be made illegal. More compounds were added to state law during this year’s legislative session. But two more new compounds have been identified since then.

Psychologist April Foreman, suicide prevention coordinator for the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care Center, said that since last fall, they have been seeing more veterans with psychotic symptoms who have had no prior mental health issues. The behavior — related to synthetic marijuana — has been alarming, and the veterans needed immediate hospitalization and follow-up.

In conversations, Foreman said, they said they had been using synthetic cannabinoids weeks or months prior to the event. “We don’t really have a good understanding what this chemical is doing and the long-term treatment,” she said.

Effects of synthetic marijuana are showing up in parish jails too as people are picked up for committing some offense after taking it.

“They get here, and they are OK for a little while. Then it starts getting into their system, and they start acting really bizarre,” said Linda Ottesen, the prison health care manager for East Baton Rouge Parish Emergency Medical Services.

The Capital Area Human Services District is providing a part-time social worker at the parish prison under a new contract with EMS because of increases in activity there.

Capital Area Director Jan Kasofsky said the behavioral health collaborative is developing a public awareness campaign aimed at pointing out the dangers, especially for teens and young adults.

“It is truly poisoning the brain,” Kasofsky said. “People need to stop calling it synthetic marijuana. That just says it is something that is safe, and it’s not.”

Follow Marsha Shuler on Twitter, @MarshaShulerCNB.