BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Just five years ago, experts at the State Crime Lab had never heard of synthetic marijuana. This year, they expect it to be the second most common drug they see. A national survey shows one in nine high school students have tried it, and the long term effects have could be devastating.
Local emergencies rooms are flooded with cases involving synthetic marijuana. Patients show up with severe, sometimes life threatening, symptoms including seizures, extremely high blood pressure and heart rate, deteriorating muscle tissue, and psychotic breaks.
"They're paranoid, they're delusional, they hear voices and this sounds like a lot of other mental health issues that we know of like schizophrenia," explained East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Dr. Beau Clark.
Health officials and law enforcement called an urgent meeting Friday morning to address the rising problem. They are calling it an epidemic, and are looking for ways to fight back starting with the people who are seeing the effects first hand in schools, hospitals and on the streets.
"I've seen a lot of people addicted to a lot of different substances," said certified peer support specialist Tonja Myles, "This is really one of the worst."
Officials say the true danger of these synthetic drugs lies in the chemical makeup. It is constantly changing to avoid detection and get around drug laws, and those chemicals are what poison the user.
"If somebody uses this and they get hooked, I have no idea- and neither does the medical community- how to A, treat them; B, keep them off it; and C, deal with the long term problems," said the chemistry manager at the Stat Police Crime Lab Rebecca Nugent.
The other challenge is in the marketing. Clark says the name "synthetic marijuana" implies the drug is legal or may affect the body like pot. In reality, synthetic drugs or synthetic cannabinoids are nothing like marijuana.
Clark explains that users do not experience a euphoric feeling associated with pot. Instead, he says the body goes into stimulant crisis, meaning the body is dangerously over stimulated. This is what leads to those severe side effects.
"It's synthetic paranoid delusions," said Clark.
Also, Clark says the psychosis that comes along with synthetic drug use may become permanent. He predicts that users may continue to experience psychological issues long after stopping.
Other advocates say officials should change how they refer to the drugs.
"We need to call it what it is. It is poison. It is not fake weed," said Myles.
Law enforcement officials say they will continue to attach the problem by going after those who sell or distribute the product. Meanwhile, they hope the community will become more educated about the real effect these drugs have.