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State hoping second ban on synthetic marijuana sticks

GAINESVILLE -- Synthetic marijuana is illegal in Georgia -- again.

Recently, Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law a bill outlawing "all forms of synthetic marijuana."

Senate Bill 370 -- Chase's Law, in memory of Chase Burnett, a 16-year-old from Fayette County who drowned in a hot tub after smoking the drug commonly referred to "spice" -- is aimed at successfully curbing a drug that has seen a rampant increase in usage, especially among young people.

But state lawmakers have attempted such legislation before -- with little success.

The first generation of synthetic marijuana, or "herbal incense" as it's marketed in head shops and gas stations, was banned by the state last year. That law targeted specific cannabinoid compounds present in popular brands like "K2" or "Spice."

Those compounds, JWH-018 or HU-210 for example, bind to the same receptors in the body as delta-9-tetrahydracannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive component of marijuana. The compounds are added to a variety of dried plant substances, creating synthetic marijuana.

But the "incense" industry began to change those compounds slightly, sidestepping the law to keep their products on store shelves.

The second generation of the product is what Chase's Law looks to stop, while preventing a third generation by generalizing the language in an attempt to identify the main compound and outlawing it and any derivative.

"Last year we tried to identify all the compounds we could possibly think of and, I think, we did a pretty good job," said state Sen. Buddy Carter, who sponsored the bill. "But all the bad guys did was come up with some variation of it to get by. But this year we decided to try this other way -- to identify just the base compound."

He believes the new language will aid in the permanent removal and enforcement of the drug.

"This gives law enforcement much more latitude to enforce the law and get these products off our convenience store shelves," he said.

But the question people familiar with the drug are asking is if the new law will effectively put a stop to the sale of synthetic marijuana.

"As soon as they make it illegal, (manufacturers will) make a new one and call it a different name and put a different picture on the package and that's how they keep doing it," said Jarrod Naylor, a resident at The 3D Life, a local residential program for troubled young men. "Then that one is made illegal and they do it again. It's all the same stuff though."

Naylor and housemate Ethan Vance are all too familiar with "spice," and its dangers.

"For long-term use, it's just as bad as any other drug: meth, cocaine, anything like that," said Vance, who used to be a frequent spice smoker and former meth addict. "I thought since it's legal, it must not be that bad. But when I got off of it, I realized it was just as bad and I had all the same symptoms (as meth)."

The two are not alone. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, one in nine high school seniors in 2011 reported using the drug.

Popularity on the rise

What the community is left with are unanswered questions and children in the hospital.

Lt. Col. Kevin Jarrard, commandant at Riverside Military Academy, said he has put cadets in the hospital without knowing if they would live or not. One, he said, had a heart rate of more than 200 beats per minute.

The usage from cadets, he said, has increased dramatically over the past 30 months, something he attributes to its former legal status and easy access.

"Hall County is going to bury a teenager from this," he said. "I hope it doesn't take a funeral to make people realize."

The product, formerly available in convenience stores and head shops, is marketed for nonhuman use.

Store attendants at Smoke and More declined comment on the advice of their attorney. They also declined to give their names.The store owner did not return a phone message as of press time and the company's email inbox was full.

"It's the simplest drug to get," Vance said. "It's easier than getting alcohol."

Since the drug is fairly new to the narcotics landscape, not much is known about its long-term effects. Short-term side effects include seizures, vomiting, irritability and an elevated heart rate and blood pressure, among others.

"The effects have been pretty widespread," said Dr. Gaylord Lopez, director at the Georgia Poison Center. "They're not the typical kind of things you would see with typical marijuana exposure."

The availability, cost, legality and lack of documented side effects made the drug a popular choice among the young crowd.

"It was supposed to be just like pot, except it doesn't show up on a drug test, it was cheaper, you can get it at a gas station -- it was convenient," Naylor said. "So me and my buddies got real high on it. To us, it just became something convenient. When we couldn't get the drugs we were using -- pot, pain pills or whatever it was -- we would just smoke that stuff."

But Naylor began seeing changes in his friends who smoked frequently, sometimes four to five times a day. One friend, he remembers, said he could feel and notice the changes in his mood and demeanor, but didn't quit.

"He knew what was going on," Naylor said. "He knew that stuff was affecting his brain. He said he could feel lots of effects that weren't good for him, but he kept using it."

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`As bad as any narcotic'

Although research on the long-term effects of spice is not widely documented, those who were once part of the circle of drug users intimately know the consequences.

"I would say this drug could be labeled as a hard drug," Vance said. "It's just as bad as any narcotic; it could go on that list."

Those at The 3D Life are not new to synthetic marijuana. In fact, they're way ahead of the curve.

"We hear about this stuff way before the government does anything about it," said Greg Brooks, director of 3D Life. "And typically they're about two years behind the times."

He says the lackadaisical approach that some users take to the drug is mind-blowing.

"It's the Russian roulette of drugs right now," Brooks said. "We've gotten phone calls from overdose parents saying, `It was legal. We were OK with it because he was going to smoke something and it was legal, so we didn't really have a problem until he overdosed and now he's laid up in ICU."'

That's not advertised on the package, all three say.

"We never want to tell our kids to use drugs, but if they're using drugs, the last on the list is synthetic marijuana because of the effects it immediately has," Brooks said. "You might as well put a needle in your arm and shoot up meth."

But the wait synthetic marijuana users will have until the third generation hits the stores may not be that long.

According to Smoke and More's Facebook page: "We are still talking to manufacturers and attorney's about new Herbal Incense requirements. The fact is ... it's already in production; but, everybody is being extremely cautious and dotting their i's and crossing their t's. Since we have always been above board and only carried legal product we are one of those that are being very thorough on what we are going to allow in our stores for our customers.

New product will be coming soon which is within the law to keep your homes smelling great!"

That quick turnaround in which a new strain could hit the streets doesn't surprise anyone familiar with it. After the first generation of it was banned, the next was on shelves immediately.

"It wasn't even a day later when they had the new stuff," Vance said. "It seemed like they had it in the store waiting."

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`It's not a safe option'

If, or when, a third generation emerges doesn't really matter, says Brooks.

It will not stop the problem.

"This is probably not a real popular statement, but the drug is not necessarily the problem," he said. "It's the reasons and the purpose behind the drugs that's the issue. It's the lack of parenting, the lack of involvement from the parents. Each of these guys that come through our program can tell you the same thing. ... Taking the drug away or outlawing the drug doesn't fix anything. It's just a Band-Aid over one certain drug and (users will) find something else to go do."

A third generation may be along -- or maybe it will not -- but odds are the drug will never fully disappear.

And that, Vance and Naylor say, is unsettling.

"It's not a safe option," Naylor said. "It's not a better idea ... it's not some insignificant thing, you know."They may be only 18 years old, but both know the consequences firsthand. Vance says it's a road that no one should follow.

"The consequences of using this drug over a long period of time are unfathomable," he said.