Fake pot has DL school officials concerned
At the start of the school year, school officials got a startling realization -- there's a new drug in town. And, it's legal.
"Basically, it's poisonous," Angie Horner, chemical health coordinator at Detroit Lakes Public Schools, said of synthetic marijuana.
The fake marijuana contains JWH-018, a chemical similar to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, only it's higher potency and gives a stronger, longer high.
"It's sold as incense, that's why it's legal," Horner said of the tobacco shops that sell the fake pot. "They know what it's being used for though."
This fall when Horner gave a presentation to school staff, she said most, if not all, had never heard of the drug and certainly didn't realize how much it was popping up on the Detroit Lakes radar.
The start of the school year was "the first time I found out about it, but now I see it all the time," she said.
"It's very, very, very scary," she said of the synthetic material that can cause blackouts, seizures, comas and cardiac arrest.
"It's not regulated, so they don't know what it's going to do because it's sold as incense," she said. "I'm afraid someone has to die before the community realizes this is a problem."
It isn't just one type of student using the fake drug either. Users getting caught include athletes and middle schoolers.
"And 90 percent of parents didn't know anything about it," she said of those she's had to call about their kids getting caught with the synthetic drug. Her job now, she says, is to "educate them -- this is what it looks like."
"It's a gateway drug" to harder drugs, she added.
"I had a friend who was a major pothead and he got caught and he told me about it," Ethan Jensen, 15, said of how he got started this summer on the fake marijuana.
"It's cheaper, you can smoke it while taking UAs, the chemical is 28 times stronger than THC, so it's more potent."
That the drug does not show up in UAs, or urine analysis tests, is a problem for those like Horner whose job it is to test students for drug use.
But, she said, she recently went to a convention and a new test is available that synthetic marijuana will show up on, therefore, it's only a matter of time before more, easier, tests will be available.
While the synthetic marijuana may be legal because it is incense, it is still against school policy to use any tobacco product or any mind-altering substance.
K2, or Kryp2nite, is a more pure form of the synthetic pot, but there are also alternatives like Fusion, Purple Sticky, Posh, Summit, Blonde and Ultra. They each give a different high.
Horner said she's done a lot of research, and some of that research has been from conversations with Jensen, a 10th grader at the school.
"(You feel like you're) floating the entire time. You're so into your own world," he describes the high. "Some is really scary, but it's a fun scary."
His first time: A friend was doing it and Jensen thought, "I don't know if I want to do this. Screw it. I did it."
He said he didn't feel anything at first, so he smoked more. Then he started jerking a lot and had to focus on breathing because he was having a seizure from it.
"It was fun but scary at the same time."
The second time he smoked it, he blacked out.
"If you smoke it like weed, you're going to black out," he said.
About one bowl of the fake stuff equals four bowls of marijuana in potency.
After a few months of smoking the synthetic pot, Jensen said he quit because he made promises that he would, and he's stuck to it.
That's not before his mother found out he was smoking it, though. He said she was disappointed in him, and he felt guilty for being high around her.
Jensen said before he started smoking much, he did research to find out flavors and what they do. He also read that it can be as addictive as cocaine.
Some of his friends have quit the synthetic stuff to go back to marijuana.
"Weed is old fashioned -- keep with tradition," is their philosophy, he said.
When Horner told Jensen how quickly the synthetic weed sells at the tobacco stores in town, he said, "I didn't know we'd make it that popular."
Asked if he was proud of that, he replied, "I'm not proud. I would have been a while ago, but I'm astonished it's gotten this big."
When Jensen and his friends would smoke the product, he said they would zone out and play music really loud or just walk around town. Although, some stupid things were attempted as well, he admits.
"We'd embrace everything around us," he said.
For the first two weeks of school, Jensen was high. He said he found the lectures to be more interesting and he could do math better, but he couldn't read.
"I don't know anyone who doesn't smoke weed anymore. It's sad and ruins their life," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if someone dies. I thought I was going to do it."
Horner said she'll be holding sessions for parents to attend on what the synthetic marijuana looks like and what it does to their children. The dates are yet to be determined though.
"There's nothing they can do about it, really," as far as the justice system, she said, since it's legal, but she wants parents and community members to be aware.
"We can't enforce it. We just let the school know about it," School Resource Officer Beau Shroyer confirmed.
When the drug dog is brought in, he can't detect it either.
Horner said she'd like to go to the city council to get it banned from being sold in town, too.
But, she added, she's been told that stores would be upset because they make so much money from fake pot sales.
"I really could have used that $400 I spent on drugs," Jensen agrees.
Not easy to ban
In late August, Duluth became the first Minnesota city to ban synthetic marijuana, making it illegal to sell, make, buy or possess the products, often sold as K2 or Spice, according to the Duluth News Tribune, but the city is now enmeshed in legal challenges. Head shops sued, claiming unfair competition with similar businesses in nearby cities.
The Grand Rapids City Council recently tabled a resolution to ban synthetic marijuana.
It's not so easy to get rid of fake pot, which has soared in popularity in the past year or so, though it has existed since 1995, when Clemson University chemistry professor John Huffman developed the compounds in while researching the effect of cannabinoids, the active compounds found in marijuana.
Bans have been adopted by lawmakers or public health officials in North Dakota, Iowa, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee.
But stores that did a brisk business in synthetic marijuana easily got around the bans by making slight changes to the chemical formula, creating knockoffs with different names.