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Central NY sees another increase in synthetic drug use

Ellen Abbott
WRVO News File Photo

The numbers of synthetic marijuana cases called into the Upstate New York Poison Center continues to be off the charts. Officials say there could be more than 800 by the end of the year if the cases don’t abate.

There have been 412 cases of synthetic marijuana called into the Upstate New York Poison Center since January, compared to a total of 142 all of last year.

“It’s, it’s utterly ridiculous. Very disconcerting,” said Michelle Caliva, the executive director of the poison center.

Caliva has been doing this job for two decades, and has never seen anything like this. She says a majority of the cases are in central New York and New York City. Most of the patients are in their 20s, although she notes more teens are beginning to call about bad experiences with the product, commonly known as spike or spice.  

The hard thing about this epidemic is that doctors and poison prevention experts still don’t know a lot about the drugs people are using when they show up in emergency rooms. That’s partly because producers often tweak the chemical composition of the drugs to stay ahead of the law.  

For example, when local emergency rooms were inundated with synthetic marijuana cases in April, patients experienced a different kind of symptoms than the ones flooding the emergency rooms now.

“What we had seen prior, were patients who were very agitated, tachycartic, paranoid, increased heart rate, all the systems in their body were in hyper mode. Now we’re seeing patients who are coming in sleepy, heart rates are dropping, and completely different from the previous presentation,” said Caliva.

That makes experts think that the bad reactions are caused by the different chemical configurations of the drugs, which are mostly produced in China and repackaged and often sold here in slick, shiny packages.

That’s why Caliva believes it’s going to take more than local governments, or even the state, to legislate or regulate their way out the way out of the spike crisis. The answer she believes is getting after the producers.

And Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) agrees, noting that legislation passed three years ago gave the Drug Enforcement Administration more leeway to go after the producers.

"They’re just very slow at it. And in all fairness to them, these drug dealers go find a way to do it and try to stay a step ahead of them," said Schumer, during a visit to Syracuse.


So in the meantime, the poison center continues to beat the drum, warning all potential spike users, that they can end up in the hospital.

“We need to rally and get the word out, to especially as college is about to start, kids going to school at the same time, and to talk about the dangers of this and to really explain, we don’t know what this stuff is,” said Caliva.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.