Synthetic marijuana taking toll on homeless
The hallucinogen is cheap, available and extremely dangerous, experts say.
ST. LOUIS — The nation’s homeless are proving to be especially susceptible to a new, dirt-cheap version of synthetic marijuana, which leaves users glassy-eyed, aimless, sprawled on streets and sidewalks oblivious to their surroundings or wandering into traffic.
Nearly 300 homeless people became ill last month in St. Louis due to the manmade hallucinogen that experts believe is far more dangerous and unpredictable than the real thing. Other outbreaks have occurred in New York City, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas.
“It was common for us to see reactions where they were violent, incoherent, sometimes catatonic on the ground,” Austin police Lt. Kurt Thomas said.
The homeless are easy targets in a confined area, experts say. The drug is cheap — as little as $1 or $2 for a joint — more difficult to detect in drug tests and a fast escape from a harsh reality.
Things got so bad in St. Louis last month that the region’s largest provider of homeless services urged people to stop giving the homeless handouts, because they were worried the money would be used to buy the drug.
The Rev. Larry Rice saw the odd behaviors from several homeless people in the streets outside his New Life Evangelistic Center shelter in downtown St. Louis.
“They told me, ‘You get so low, you get such a sense of hopelessness. Somebody wants to sell this for a dollar and you take it,’ ” the Rev. Rice said. “People are desperate out there.”
Synthetic marijuana has been around since the late 2000s, packaged under names like K2, Darkness and Mr. Happy. The Drug Enforcement Administration says it is usually a mixture of herbs and spices sprayed with a synthetic compound chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
The medical dangers are real with synthetic marijuana, which can be up to 100 times more potent than real marijuana, said Dr. Anthony Scalzo, director of toxicology for the St. Louis University School of Medicine.
Users often experience rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, anxiety and hallucinations, he said.
Research published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated that 20 deaths from August 2011 through April 2015 were blamed on synthetic marijuana, though that doesn’t account for overdose deaths of undetermined or multiple causes. Dr. Scalzo said those who survive can suffer permanent kidney failure and brain damage.
“We have no idea how the body is going to react to the next wave of chemicals,” Dr. Scalzo said. “It’s like Russian roulette. You just don’t know what you’re getting.”