Symposium targets synthetic marijuana


Officers see increase in use of the deadly drug

Del Mar College hosted dozens of first responders, counselors and law enforcement officials at a regional stakeholder symposium on synthetic drugs on June 10. Those in attendance were there to gather intelligence and educate themselves on the dangers and impact that synthetic marijuana is having on the community.

“The Corpus Christi Fire Department was the first notice the epidemic,” said Michael Alanis, chief of investigations for the Corpus Christi Police Department. “They came to CCPD with it.”

“It” is synthetic marijuana, which has become a big problem for residents of Corpus Christi. In 2015, 275 arrests were made per month on average, and the majority of those involved synthetic marijuana.

In 2011, CCPD collected 3,960 pieces of evidence related to drugs. In 2013 it was 5,053, and 6,900 in 2015.

District Attorney Mark Skurka was unable to give an exact figure of how the increase in arrests and court cases has affected taxes, but he did say it was “a lot.”

District Attorney Mark Skurka talks about the dangers of synthetic marijuana during a symposium June 10 at Del Mar College. Photo by Bill Eaves/Foghorn
District Attorney Mark Skurka talks about the dangers of synthetic marijuana during a symposium June 10 at Del Mar College. Photo by Bill Eaves/Foghorn

Synthetic Marijuana, or “Legal” as it’s often referred to by users, started off as the quest by J.W. Hoffman for a legitimate, legal derivative of marijuana that could be used as a painkiller to treat the side effects of chemotherapy, but was quickly abandoned when he realized that the side effects of his new compound were simply too dangerous.

According to Dr. Susan Dalterio, some of the effects of synthetic marijuana are cardiac toxicity; severe vomiting; vertigo/dizziness; psychotic reactions; extreme anxiety, agitation and irritability; seizures; acute kidney injury; and amnesia.

“One-quarter of the ER visits regarding synthetic cannabinoids lead to ICU admissions,” Dalterio said. “And it’s so hard to test for because there are over 100 different compounds.”

State Trooper Nathan Brandley spoke about his experiences when dealing with the drug and its users and spoke specifically about an interview he’d had with a suspect after an arrest involving the drug.

“I find that it’s the instant explosion of euphoria that attracts users,” he said. “There is no delay. The chemicals hit you immediately.”

Brandley added that they’ve had a case of a third-grader who had been using it, which isn’t that surprising when you see the packages synthetic marijuana is housed in.

Judge Joseph Benavides said the labeling on the packages is purposely misleading.

“A lot of the kids I deal with are truants who think that because the package says it’s ‘legal,’ that it is. They don’t realize that this stuff is actually illegal,” Benavides said.

Benavides also says he’s seen a huge link between truancy cases and synthetic marijuana. He advised caution and vigilance when dealing with children and teens because of the immense negative impacts that this drug has had on the lives of youngsters, even bringing a guest speaker in Sharon Musich.

In December 2012, after days of smoking synthetic marijuana and drinking, Jacob Musich and two of his friends kidnapped and raped an 11-year-old girl. He was sentenced to life in prison for his part, and his mother spoke of the ordeal she’s dealt with since. Her husband had a heart attack in his sleep, and her youngest son will spend the rest of his life in prison. She also spoke of another son who has lost friends because of the drug. Jacob blamed the crime on synthetic marijuana, but he has also accepted responsibility for his actions and said, “I deserve life in prison.”

Synthetic marijuana has become “the defense du jour,” according to Skurka. “Assaults, murder, kidnapping, capital murder, theft, rape. They’re all saying, ‘The legal made me do it.’ ”

The problems, according to Skurka, come with legislation. Initially, the 12 active compounds in synthetic marijuana were made illegal. However, the battle taking place with this drug is one of chemistry. A dozen were outlawed, and 40 new compounds took their place. Now, there are more than 120 compounds, and even more sub-compounds. It’s difficult to combat that by playing catch-up.

In 2013, legislation was proposed to make any derivative of these compounds illegal, but it wasn’t passed until 2015.

“Two years too late if you ask me,” Skurka said.

The symposium’s final speaker was Dr. Lynn Crocker, chief hospitalist at Christus Spohn Shoreline and South. Crocker explained that these chemicals, which are made in China and shipped ready made to the U.S., open the blood brain barrier and let in things that would otherwise not be in there. This leads to lesions on the brain, seizures, short-term amnesia and stroke. She said she sees a case involving the drug every day.

“Death is kinder,” she said while telling the story of a 58-year-old former nurse who had tried the drug. The nurse had a seizure and was found at a bus stop alone. She suffered a brain injury from loss of oxygen and had to be hooked up to a feeding tube. She could only communicate through grunts and was completely dependent on hospital staff for 276 days until she died.

Crocker also told of a 33-year-old man who tried it and had a stroke. The right side of his body completely died, and he too was put on a feeding tube. She said he was uninsured, which means taxpayers are now on the hook for this man for the rest of his life.

Because it’s a relatively new drug, many may not know what to look for if they suspect someone is using it. Walter Roberts, clinical director of Charlie’s Place Recovery Center, said to be on the lookout for “any noticeable change.” Meaning, if you know someone well enough to know that they’re behaving differently than normal, it’s cause to ask them how they’re doing. It may be nothing, but they only way you’ll know is if you ask. Don’t let your friend or family member become a story at a symposium.

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