This year, synthetic marijuana use has surged throughout the state, particularly in eastern Connecticut.
The drug isn’t anything like marijuana, either in its chemical composition or the high that it gives.
“I think the first time I smoked it I thought something was wrong,” said Chris Schaefer, who began smoking synthetic marijuana as a middle school student. “I remember feeling terrible after smoking it."
Schaefer was lucky in that while his body temperature rose, never got sick enough to be hospitalized.
Others weren’t so lucky.
People from all over are ending up in the emergency room because of the synthetic cannabinoids.
“It doesn't appear to be different than other addictions, appears the same,” said Dr. Craig Allen, who is an addiction specialist.
He said the synthetic drugs can even be 100 times more potent than marijuana.
They’re made by spraying chemicals onto plants, made to look like pot, but these have far more chilling and damaging symptoms, like “rapid heart rate, high blood pressure high temps, breaks down muscles, kidneys,” Allen said.
He has been working with users, including some who had been hospitalized during a spike in synthetic drug use over spring and summer.
There are state and federal laws against the sale of synthetic marijuana, but that has only forced the market underground and it's still booming, especially in Willimantic.
Detective Michael Suplicki said police have responded to dozens of 911 calls tied to synthetic cannabinoid use.
“It would be like a scene from the Walking Dead,” Suplicki said. “We would have to restrain them on the gurney's to get them to the hospital, then we would have to restrain them at the hospital."
Windham Hospital treated numerous patients, but its emergency room could not confirm the number because synthetic cannabinoids don’t show up on normal drug screenings.
There is no antidote or cure, and there is little doctors can do to ultimately treat the symptoms.
According to the State Poison Control Center, so far this year there have been 58 synthetic cannabinoid mentions.
There were 21 last year, 15 in 2013 and 59 reported in 2012, which was the same year when the state passed regulations banning “k2” and “Spice” and similar synthetic drugs.
Karen Butterworth-Erban oversees emergency departments in eastern Connecticut, and said there is a new plan in place at Backus Hospital where mental health counselors are brought to the bedside of users who likely overdosed on synthetic marijuana.
The theory is that an early conversation with users can go a long way.
“Do you need treatment, are you in treatment, and how can we continue that pathway for you,” she said are some of the questions asked.
The alternative is discharging the patient, and many times that person is back in the emergency room within a day.
Schaefer stopped using synthetic marijuana in high school. He is now a junior in college and is studying to be an accountant.
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