44 overdoses in New Hampshire, prompts local officials to step up monitoring of synthetic marijuana 'smacked'

Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — While New Hampshire officials deal with a rash of overdoses caused by a potent type of synthetic marijuana called “Smacked,” a merchant who helps run two downtown head shops said the product is unfamiliar to him.

“Today is the first time I heard of ‘Smacked’,” said Keith Hazel, who was manning the counter at Shop Therapy – The Vault on Tuesday afternoon. Hazel’s brother owns the store and a related one on Main Street.

But Hazel is not surprised that there is a big market for synthetic marijuana products that go by many names, including Spice and K2. He said Shop Therapy did a brisk business with those products several years ago, but the stores stopped selling them after they were banned at the federal level by the Obama administration.

“It’s been banned already, but people are still selling it illegally,” Hazel said. “It was very popular here.”

Hazel became aware of the problem in New Hampshire when police and health officials from the city visited the shop Tuesday. Police Captain Jody Kasper said police are monitoring the situation and advising people to be aware that a bad batch of products is on the market.

“We are making our officers aware of it,” Kasper said. “Anything that’s going on in a state as close as New Hampshire is of concern to us.”

Amherst Police Chief Scott P. Livingstone said Wednesday that his officers are also aware of the issue, and will canvass stores to see what’s on the shelves. The topic also will be discussed next week at department staff meetings and in meetings with the University of Massachusetts Amherst Police Department before students arrive for fall semester.

“It’s certainly on our radar,” Livingstone said. “The recent events in New Hampshire are pretty concerning ... We haven’t had any calls or medical calls about it yet, but we’re watching it.”

Kasper and Merridith O’Leary, Northampton’s health agent, confirmed that they visited several local head shops and found that none was selling Smacked or other related synthetic cannabinoid products. Kasper said the other items on the shelves are legal.

“There were no synthetic marijuana products being sold,” O’Leary said. “We didn’t go to all the convenience stores and bodegas, but focused on the head shops.”

The problem in New Hampshire came to the fore late last week when Gov. Maggie Hassan declared a public health emergency linked to Smacked, a brand of synthetic marijuana that caused at least 40 people to experience serious medical reactions last week in the Manchester and Concord areas. Kasper said Manchester, New Hampshire, police sent an email about its recent problems with the product to police departments throughout the region.

Smacked is sold in brightly colored packages with flavors such as bubble gum, lemon-lime and blueberry. The products are often identified as incense and potpourri and made of herbs and spices that are sprayed with a synthetic version of THC, which people then smoke or brew in tea. They are also advertised as not for human consumption.

Easthampton Police Capt. Robert Alberti said his department has not seen or heard much about the drug lately, and he has not heard anything from his contacts in the federal Drug Enforcement Agency office in Springfield.

He said they did have a problem with Spice a few years ago, but a change in state laws ended that. He said Manchester police warned that people who smoked it sometimes became unresponsive or unconscious. Mostly, the problems were due to the psychological effects of the drug: hallucinations, panic attacks, anxiety and similar issues requiring medical treatment. The email said the drugs are usually sold in gas stations, convenience stores and head shops. They are also available online.

Although Livingstone said he is aware that synthetic marijuana has grown in popularity in recent years, Amherst police have not seen it surface there. “Our officers haven’t had any experience with it yet, but we’re preparing for it if needed,” he said.

UMass police are also aware of the situation, but report that officers have yet to encounter Smacked or other similar products, said university spokesman Patrick Callahan.

“Basically, they say they haven’t seen it and it hasn’t been an issue,” Callahan said.

O’Leary said the Health Department posted an advisory on its site in recent days warning people about the unpredictable nature of Smacked and other synthetic cannabinoids, though Massachusetts health officials have not reported any overdose cases. She said the content and potency of the drug often is unknown.

“If you’re dealing with a bad batch, it could be sold anywhere,” O’Leary said.

The DEA classified many of the active ingredients in synthetic cannabinoids as controlled substances in 2011, and Congress passed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act a year later. Lawmakers acted after receiving warnings from organizations such as the American Association of Poison Control Centers, which reported a spike in the number of calls about people having serious, life-threatening reactions to synthetic marijuana. In 2010, poison centers nationwide responded to about 3,200 calls related to synthetic marijuana and so-called bath salts. In 2011, that number jumped to more than 13,000 calls, with 60 percent of the cases involving patients 25 and younger.

The law permanently banned 26 types of synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones, which are commonly found in bath salts.

With names like Spice, K2, No More Mr. Nice Guy, and hundreds of others, the drugs are marketed as a “legal high” but are very different from marijuana. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, they contain powerful chemicals called cannabimimetics and can cause dangerous health effects including psychotic episodes and seizures. Like many other illegal drugs, synthetic marijuana is not tested for safety, and users do not really know exactly what chemicals they are putting into their bodies, the organization says.

One in nine high school seniors in America reported using synthetic marijuana in the past year, making the drug the second most frequently used illegal drug among that group after marijuana, according to the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy.

It can be difficult for local authorities to enforce the federal ban without state or local laws prohibiting the drugs. New Hampshire does not ban the sale of synthetic cannabinoids. Massachusetts lawmakers two years ago banned “bath salts,” synthetic stimulants that mimic the effects of traditional drugs like cocaine, but did not include synthetic marijuana. That changed July 1 with the introduction of a new law banning such substances.

Kasper said it is also challenging for lawmakers to keep up with manufacturers of the products, who often circumvent regulations by substituting new chemicals for THC, the ingredient in marijuana that delivers a high.

“They keep making new products with different ingredients,” Kasper said. “The laws can’t stay on top of it. But in our walk-throughs today, the shops were all in compliance.”

Synthetic cannabinoids laced on plant material were first reported in the U.S. in late 2008 when a shipment of Spice was seized and analyzed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Dayton, Ohio. Since then, the Office of National Drug Control Policy reports that the number of products with synthetic substances has skyrocketed to 158 by the end of 2012.

Staff Writer Rebecca Everett contributed to this report. Staff Writer Chad Cain can be reached at ccain@gazettenet.