A law that took effect Tuesday gives prosecutors another tool to curb synthetic-marijuana use, but area drug agents said they still face an uphill battle with a drug that’s gaining popularity nationwide.
The new law expands provisions of the Texas Controlled Substances Act, outlawing more of the chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana, widely known as K2.
“It will help in the prosecution. There’s no question,” said Ronnie Cloud of the Tarrant County district attorney’s narcotics unit. “But I believe manufacturers and users will still find a way.”
K2 is a mixture of herbs, spices or shredded plant material typically sprayed with a synthetic compound similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
The new law comes as reports of K2 exposures are increasing statewide.
In 2013, the Texas Poison Center reported 464 exposures to synthetic marijuana. That figure increased to 782 in 2014. Through Aug. 17 of this year, the number is 477, trailing only Mississippi and New York.
Nationwide, poison centers received 2,668 calls about exposure to synthetic marijuana in 2013 and 3,680 in 2014. Through Aug. 17 of this year, poison centers have received reports of 5,369 exposures.
From Jan. 1 to April 22, poison centers received reports of 1,900 exposures, almost four times the number for the same period in 2014.
The dramatic spike earlier this year is attributed to a more dangerous batch of synthetic marijuana. Increases were noted in New York, Alabama, Texas, Mississippi, New Jersey, Florida and Arizona.
The surge prompted poison center officials to issue public warnings in April across the country. Additional warnings have not been issued in recent weeks, but poison center officials noted that K2 continues to send people to emergency rooms.
“These synthetic drugs present a potentially fatal risk that is not well-recognized by people consuming these products,” Jay Schauben, president of the American Association of Poison Control Centers, said in a statement released in April.
The harmful effects of K2 were first reported in 2009, according to the association.
Other experts agree that synthetic marijuana poses high risks.
“Our research shows that people are playing Russian roulette with their lives because only the chemist creating the synthetic cannabinoid really knows what is in it,” Dr. Eric Wish, director of the Coordinating Center for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said in a statement this year.
Officials noted that the drug is not marijuana and contains chemicals called cannabimimetics. Poison center officials said they have received reports from emergency rooms that the effects have ranged from life-threatening to severe agitation, seizures, intense hallucinations and harmful thoughts.
The drug goes by dozens of other names, including Spice, No More Mr. Nice Guy, Black Mamba Bliss and Fake Weed.
Although local drug agents said the K2 problem has been steady in Tarrant County through the years, exact numbers were unavailable.
K2 arrests have made headlines in Fort Worth the past few years. Owners of the Gas Pipe head shop chain who were arrested in May face federal charges of conspiring to sell synthetic marijuana. The trials for Gerald “Jerry” Shults and his daughter, Amy Lynn Herrig, are scheduled in 2016.
In summer 2014, Ridglea Theater in Fort Worth — a Camp Bowie Boulevard landmark owned by Shults and listed on the National Register of Historic Places — was one of several North Texas properties seized in a federal crackdown on a Dallas-based synthetic-marijuana operation.
In a complaint filed in federal court last summer, prosecutors said employees of Shults’ Gas Pipe on Maple Avenue in Dallas were making K2 and Spice in a room at the business in early 2014. Federal documents list 20 other defendants along with Herrig and Shults.