Poisonings from fake marijuana have jumped alarmingly and usage has become so prevalent that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced new efforts Thursday to prevent the sale of products often sold in head shops, vaporiums and online.
So-called synthetic marijuana goes by a litany of names on the street — K2, Spice, Green Giant, Smacked, Wicked X, AK-47, Geeked Up, Ninja, Caution, Red Giant, and Keisha Kole, state health officials said Thursday.
Earlier this week 33 people were rushed to Brooklyn hospitals when a bad batch of K2 sickened dozens in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
“It was like ‘The Walking Dead.’ A zombie scene,” said Brian Arthur, 38, about the street scene on Tuesday.
Users not only were seen wandering the streets, some were lying on sidewalks and leaning against fire hydrants and trees, witnesses said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has declared an epidemic.
Cuomo announced a series of aggressive actions to fight the sale of K2 and other illegal synthetics. He said the state health department’s Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, in partnership with the New York State Police, would clamp down on sales statewide.
“The evolution of synthetic drugs is an alarming public health risk,” Cuomo said in a statement Thursday.
The synthetics, which can be smoked like conventional marijuana or inhaled from incense, are made in clandestine labs abroad. And while the drugs tend to have a chemical resemblance to THC — the key psychoactive compound in marijuana — illegal drugmakers frequently change the chemical structure to conceal the products’ identity to keep from having them seized as they cross U.S. borders, experts say.
Writing in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on Thursday, a national team of researchers said usage had exploded — and so had hospitalizations.
The weekly report, a publication of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted 42,138 poisonings caused by the drugs nationwide from Jan. 1, 2010, to Nov. 30, 2015. The poisonings were reported by only 101 hospitals.
In a subset of 456 cases, researchers found 70 percent of users were 19 to 65 years old and 27.4 percent were ages 13 to 18. More than 80 percent of users were male, researchers found.
The drugs can cause hallucinations, heart rhythm disturbances, delirium, coma and death. The synthetics are said to be two times to 100 times more potent than actual marijuana.
Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, chief executive of the Family & Children’s Association in Mineola, said the synthetics are called cannabinoids but often have very little, if any, genuine marijuana.
“To call this stuff marijuana is a misnomer because it is not marijuana in any way shape or form,” Reynolds said.
He said the products largely hail from labs in China and are sold surreptitiously in head shops, vaporiums and “no-name gas stations” on Long Island.
Worse, the products are sold online as incense and potpourri, by vendors whose whereabouts are difficult to track, Reynolds said.
Online products often use fanciful names to attract young buyers, he said. “If you look at the packaging you can see it’s not designed to attract the attention of a 50-year-old man because it’s sold under names like Scooby Snacks and Bizarro with a Superman logo on it,” Reynolds said.
In Manhattan, emergency medicine physician Dr. Robert Glatter said he had treated toxic exposures to fake marijuana and sedated some of these patients to prevent them from harming themselves or the emergency staff.
“We’ve seen sporadic cases, but not like the plethora coming from the Bronx and Brooklyn,” said Glatter of Northwell Health system’s Lenox Hill Hospital. “People use it because they believe it’s natural, and therefore, safe.”
The synthetic drugs are sometimes coated in insecticides, even rat poison, Glatter said.
Patients given drug tests routinely pass them, however, because the drugs lack THC, he said.