Synthetic marijuana taking toll in region

New London — James Palmer of Norwich thought he was familiar with the effects of smoking synthetic marijuana, sometimes marketed as "K2."

But what started as the 15- to 20-minute buzz he is accustomed to turned into a two-week stay at the hospital last month, including one week in a coma with machines helping him to breathe.

"I don't wish that on anybody," said Palmer, 50. "God must have me here for a reason. It almost took my life. I've smoked it before but this time I just collapsed. I don't remember anything."

Hospitalizations for people smoking the chemically laced potpourri, sometimes sold as "Spice," or "Scooby Snax," have spiked in recent months, according to regional health care and social workers, especially those working with the indigent population.

Local emergency medical service providers, those who have known about the wide range of effects from the drug for years, report a similar increase for the year.

Palmer said he woke up at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in a hospital bed hooked up to a respiratory machine, an intravenous drip and electrodes stuck to his head.

He's not sure whether the drug was laced or just a bad chemical mix, but something was definitely different this time.

Effects of the drug are unpredictable based on the person using and the variances in the drug's chemical makeup, said Dr. Oliver Mayorga, chairman of emergency medicine at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital. He said what could act a sedative for one person can have the opposite effect on others, leaving them "extremely agitated, violent and confused." He compared the effect on some users to someone using PCP, also known as angel dust.

"I would say we've seen a spike in people on K2. We've dealt with it for several years, but it's become more of an issue in the last six months to a year," Mayorga said.

The hospital doesn't test for the constantly changing variations of the chemicals in the drug, something the drug makers do to skirt existing law. The state legislature passed a law making synthetic marijuana illegal in 2011, a bill sponsored by State Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford. It is treated as a controlled substance.

Mayorga said the hospital relies on the patients themselves for much of the information about what they took to help explain their illness. He recalls one patient who was hospitalized after smoking something called "nightmare."

The jump in the number of people falling ill has not gone unnoticed by members of a community care team, a group comprising social and mental health services and medical personnel who meet once a week to address concerns about different people under their care or visiting the homeless shelters.

Laura Parsons, a social worker for Mobile Outreach, a crisis team that responds to psychiatric emergencies for the Southeastern Mental Health Authority, said the drug can sometimes mimic the symptoms of a "psychotic break."

"They end up in the hospital and we're not sure if it was the drugs or not," Parsons said. "It's never been this lethal before. This is something new. People are looking at it like it's marijuana. It's not."

Cathy Zall, executive director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, agreed that the drugs appear to exacerbate psychotic tendencies in some, making them "more likely to do dangerous things."

"A lot of people seem to be able to get it. We see the packages all of the time," she said. "So many people have really almost died from it."

Zall suspects that some are taking the drug because they are on parole or probation and know they will be tested for things like marijuana, but not K2. She and employees at the shelter are spreading the word about the dangers.

Despite the fact that it is illegal, police are aware of continuing sales as evidenced by the recent arrest of a sales clerk at Ravi Mart on Bank Street in New London. Police believe an employee was selling the drug from the store and seized 145 packets of K2 during his arrest.

Palmer said he was aware that Ravi Mart had sold the drug in the past. While it was not on the counter for public viewing, a simple password such as "Bob Marley," would allow a customer to buy it, he said. He said he's also purchased it illegally at stores in Norwich and Groton.

Palmer, a recovering alcoholic, says he's learned a tough lesson after losing several friends to the drug and coming close to death himself.

"It seems like all of my friends are collapsing around me," he said. "I don't need to lose another."

g.smith@theday.com

Twitter: @SmittyDay

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