Digging deeper: Beaumont on verge of synthetic marijuana epidemic

Katelyn Richards knows all too well the dangers of smoking synthetic marijuana.

Katelyn Richards knows all too well the dangers of smoking synthetic marijuana.

"I picked it up when I was about 18," she said. "It’s way stronger than real weed. You’re in a different world, but not in a different world."

Though Richards used the stuff for years, she says she only had one experience she'd call "bad."

"I took two hits and all of a sudden, my heart was racing, my eyes were zoning out and going back," she recalled.

Katelyn knows she's lucky because she's seen the same headlines we all have about people high on synthetic weed involved in mass overdoses in Houston or sickened in Austin. Here in Beaumont, police say a man was so high on it, he thought he'd been shot.

"They’re out in Magnolia Cemetery naked, pulling flowers off the graves. That’s a literal call I went on," said Officer Haley Walters with Beaumont Police. The department has seen the number of synthetic marijuana cases to which its officers respond grow exponentially. In 2012, there were just nine cases. As of Aug. 31, there have been 217 so far in 2016. However, Officer Walters said those figures aren't exact.

"Unfortunately, it's really hard for us to pull the numbers and statistics and them be accurate because it's called so many different things," she said.

Synthetic marijuana typically refers to man-made chemicals called synthetic cannabinoids, which were created for experimental purposes years ago.

"Because of marijuana prohibition, these cannabinoids were synthetically made so researchers could test them," said Corey Mendes, deputy director of the Southeast Texas chapter of NORML. 

The FDA has since banned those chemicals, along with several developed since then, but new recipes with new ingredients keep popping up to replace the illegal ones.

"Now any half-educated chemist can replicate the process," said Mendes.

"Synthetic marijuana has any and all kind of ingredients you can think of," said Walters. "[They use] rat poison. They use ant spray."

Just as a user rarely knows what he or she is smoking, EMS crews never know what to expect when they're called out to treat someone who's on synthetic marijuana.

"It’s a different situation each time. Sometimes they have super-human strength and are totally out of their mind. Other times, they’re completely unconscious and have no idea we’re even there," said Beaumont firefighter Matt Kiser.

He said in his nine years with Beaumont Fire, he's seen the emergency response change due to the unpredictable nature of the calls.

"Patient care’s going to be delayed a little bit on it because we’re having to wait for police to clear these scenes," said Kiser.

Police response to synthetic marijuana overdoses more closely resembles meth or heroin than marijuana, according to Mendes.

"You can look at the statistics and the ER reports today and see how many people are being institutionalized or hospitalized for synthetic cannabinoids," Mendes said. "Nobody’s ever overdosed on cannabis."

He said synthetic users are turning to the dangerous alternative because marijuana isn't legal in Texas, as it is in Washington, Oregon or Colorado.

"Nobody buys synthetic in a state that has legal cannabis," said Mendes. "Synthetics have almost dropped off the map in Colorado. That’s because of legal cannabis."

Mendes said that strengthens the case to legalize it here.

"Cannabis is something we don’t need to lock away," he said.

Officer Walters said she's not sure marijuana legalization is the answer, but she said something needs to be done.

"It's wreaking havoc on Beaumont."

If you know someone who is addicted, you can help them get treatment, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers a searchable database.

(© 2016 KBMT)


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