Administrators at Tahlequah Public Schools know how life has changed drastically for today’s students, who are often tempted with synthetic substances authorities say are being falsely marketed as safe alternatives to marijuana.
“Maybe when you were in high school, it was about drinking, it was about beer, alcohol, and in extreme cases that was bad – people did die from it,” Tahlequah High School Principal Jeff Thorne said Tuesday night.
Thorne spoke during an educational seminar aimed at informing the public on the dangers of ingesting synthetic cannabinoids, which can be purchased at nearly half a dozen businesses within Tahlequah’s city limits.
“You can buy it legally. They can buy the incense, the ‘spice,’ legally,” said Thorne. “What’s illegal about it is how you use it. Kids tell me, ‘Well, it’s legal, I can buy it legally. You can buy it in several places. Walk in, put your money down, buy it.’ Alcohol was kind of predictable; this stuff is not.”
Cherokee County Juvenile Drug Court Director Cindy Farmer presented much of the information Tuesday evening. The substances – often called “spice,” “fake weed,” “Pope,” “K2,” or other slang terms – are not only affecting high-schoolers, but also those at the middle-school level.
“It’s evident that the assumption is this product is legal and safe,” said Farmer. “Manufacturers will take those synthetic sprays, or it comes in powder form and they mix it with acetone. They spray it on these leaves. They’re not measuring these chemicals. It’s pretty awakening when you think about it. They come in all forms. The average cost is $20 for 2 to 3 grams. It’s poison sprayed on leaves, and it can be up to 100 times more potent than marijuana. It is truly like playing Russian Roulette because you never know what you’re going to get when you get a package of it. Makers change chemicals regularly without notice.”
Farmer said the substances are illegal under federal law and are considered controlled substances.
“We think that because it says on the package it does not include any illegal cannabinoids, it’s OK. The fact of the matter is, it’s not OK,” she said. “It doesn’t tell us all of the different chemicals that are inside it. The way the law is set up, I don’t have to tell you as long as my product says ‘not for human consumption.’ Because of that, I don’t have to go through FDA regulations and justify putting this on the market. They’re selling it to our kids.”
Side effects of spice are typically obvious, Farmer said – including increased agitation, lack of patience, vomiting, increased blood pressure, heart attacks, inability to feel pain, the inability to move, seizures, paranoid delusions, depression, hallucinations, thoughts of suicide, feeling of impending doom or death, anxiety, and even death. Some effects are long-term.
“A 15-year-old at TPS who tried spice for the first time fell face-forward on the ground. His heart stopped,” said Farmer. “EMS responded, they were able to start his heart back, and he was in the hospital for three days. Do we know what the long-term effects of that are going to be? No. And what do we know about spice? Not a lot. Clinical studies on these products were stopped because of the effects. These products were doing such harm to the test subjects they could not continue in good conscience.”
Farmer said the products are targeted to young people with scents like blueberry, grape, cotton candy and bubble gum.
“We are in for a long battle. It’s necessary to pay attention to our children,” said Farmer. “Have a conversation with your children, make sure they are aware of the problems these drugs pose. Build a relationship and give them the tools they need to be able to adequately say, ‘You’re stupid, I’m not going to use that with you.’ Ninth- and 10th-graders very much want to belong. These kids want to belong, to find their niche. So let your kids know they can be tested for spice. We have a spice test that will do instant results.”
TPS School Resource Officer Bryan Swim said TPS started seeing effects of spice about a year ago. Board members of the district later created a policy that considers the substances similar to marijuana or other drugs.
“It gets harder and harder on a daily basis to deal with it,” said Swim. “I bet we see one incident a week, probably.”
Swim said students typically say they use spice because “it’s legal and it gets me higher than marijuana.”
“They’ve told me they’ve taken a hit off of this and they pass out, they black out; they don’t know what happened,” said Swim.
Some people can use spice and feel no immediate effect, while others have had seizures or other serious medical conditions resulting in hospitalization.
Marcus Sams, a school resource officer who works with the Cherokee County Regimented Education Academy, told the audience Tuesday night that family members have to take a key role in stopping the use of synthetic products.
“It doesn’t matter what Cindy Farmer says, or Bryan Swim, or what Marcus Sams says. It doesn’t matter,” said Sams. “The bottom line is this: This stuff is dangerous, and my projection is, within one year, we are going to have a child in this community die from this substance. It doesn’t matter what they put on the package, whatever you want to call it, all it is, is somebody is making a dollar off your children, my children, their children, exploiting them. This stuff is going to kill somebody in this community, and then what’s going to happen is, we’re all going to be standing around saying, ‘Why in the world were we not aware, why did we not do anything about this?’ It’s just going to snowball.”
Sams said it’s imperative that parents not allow others to convince them spice products are safe.
“Do not let somebody tell you this is a safe alternative, do not let them tell you this is something that will pass,” said Sams. “It’s dangerous. It’s just somebody putting a bunch of chemicals together and spraying it on this stuff. Don’t be fooled by it, don’t be fooled by a marketing ploy. You know your kids. If they’re not acting right, start asking questions. When they start avoiding it, ask them more questions. Pin them down on it. Call somebody for help.”
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