More teens use marijuana, synthetic drugs

National findings come months after Rutherford raids; people can have bad reactions to K2, Spice, other substances

December 15, 2011, Donna Leinwand Leger, USA TODAY – Nearly one in nine high school seniors have gotten high in the pas

An undercover agent inventories items at the Discount Tobacco and Food store in Murfreesboro  while executing a search warrant. The store is suspected of having ties to the illegal sale of synthetic drugs.  (Jim Davis / Gannett Tennessee)

An undercover agent inventories items at the Discount
Tobacco and Food store in Murfreesboro while executing
a search warrant. The store is suspected of having ties to
the illegal sale of synthetic drugs. (Jim Davis / Gannett

t year on synthetic drugs, such as “K2” or “Spice,” second only to the number of teens who have used marijuana, a new survey shows.

Monitoring the Future,” the nation’s most comprehensive survey of teenage drug use, found 11.4 percent of the high school seniors had used synthetic drugs, which are lab-created substances that mimic the effects of illicit drugs. They are often packed as potpourri or herbal incense and sold in convenience markets.

“It is astounding,” said Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa. “I don’t think they have any idea how dangerous these synthetic drugs are.”

Tennessee Raid

In Tennessee, state law enforcement agents charged 40 people on Tuesday with possession or possession with intent to sell synthetic drugs in Rutherford County. The arrests stem from a raid on 36 stores in September where federal, state and local law officers confiscated 23,000 units of the synthetic drugs.

K2 and Spice emerged as a problem in 2008. People who smoke the chemical-coated herbs may experience euphoria, but bad reactions are common, including convulsions, anxiety attacks, dangerously elevated heart rates, vomiting and suicidal thoughts.

Poison control centers handled 5,741 calls about the drugs in the first 10 months of 2011, nearly double the 2,915 calls received in all of 2010, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

The Federal Drug Enforcement Administration used its emergency powers in March to outlaw the substances. And, more than 40 states have passed laws banning them.

Last year, Tennessee legislators banned synthetic products marketed as incense (K2 and Spice), and this year lawmakers banned meth-mimicking “bath salts,” which are unlike the legitimate salts sold in specialty stores.

Knowing that creative chemists try to get around the laws by modifying one chemical in the product, lawmakers also broadly worded the law to prohibit “synthetic derivatives or analogues,” any related chemicals that could be created to get around the ban.

Then in July, Lebanon passed a local ordinance making possession or sale a civil offense. Offenders can be fined $50 per package. Lebanon went a step further in banning “any other substance which mimics the effects of any controlled substance.” Clarksville has a similar ban.

Latham co-sponsored a bill to outlaw 16 synthetic compounds that mimic marijuana and 15 synthetic hallucinogens after a teen shot himself after taking K2 in July 2010.

Latham’s bill passed last week. A Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is awaiting action by the full Senate.

The majority of synthetic substances confiscated from the Rutherford County markets were labeled “not for human consumption” by their manufacturers, but authorities have said the “not for human consumption packing” is nothing but a ploy and an attempt to skirt the law.

State Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna, has said he would like to get tougher on any business that sells synthetic drugs by stripping its beer license. “It would be a major deterrent,” he said.

Sparks has said some local beer boards may already have the authority to punish businesses caught selling synthetics, using existing rules that prohibit store owners from ignoring or encouraging illegal activities on store grounds.

Marijuana Still Top

Even though synthetic drug use has increased, marijuana remains the most popular drug among teens.

Marijuana use increased for the fourth year in a row after a decade of decline. Nearly 7 percent of high school seniors report smoking marijuana daily, the survey found.

“It’s the highest rate we’ve seen in 30 years, so something is going on,” said Lloyd Johnston, the survey’s principal investigator. He added that growing numbers of teens don’t see marijuana as dangerous.

“That’s a very bad indicator,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Either we do something to change that, or we will continue to see increases.”

Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office on National Drug Policy, said state legalization of marijuana for medical use is influencing teens.

“We’re sending young people the wrong message when we call it medicine,” he said.

Half of high school seniors reported having tried an illicit drug at some time, 40 percent reported using one or more drugs in the past year, and a quarter said they had used one or more drugs in the past month, the survey found.

Among 10th-graders, 38 percent said they had tried an illicit drug.

Tobacco and alcohol use are at their lowest levels since the survey began in 1975, Johnston said. “Kids consider smoking (cigarettes) to be dangerous. They aren’t even trying it,” he said.

The survey, conducted by the University of Michigan, questions 47,000 students in the eighth, 10th and 12th grades in 400 public and private schools.

Gannett Tennessee reporter Mark Bell contributed to this report.

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