- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 6, 2011

INDIANOLA, Iowa | Synthetic substances that mimic marijuana, cocaine and other illegal drugs are making users across the nation seriously ill, causing seizures and hallucinations and even killing some people.

The products are often packaged as incense or bath salts and can be obtained for as little as $10 at many head shops. As more people experiment with them, the results are becoming evident at hospitals: A sharp spike in the number of users who show up with problems ranging from labored breathing and rapid heartbeats to extreme paranoia and delusions. The symptoms can persist for days.

At the request of the Associated Press, the American Association of Poison Control Centers analyzed nationwide figures on calls related to synthetic drugs. The findings showed an alarming increase in the number of people seeking medical attention.

At least 2,700 people have fallen ill since January, compared with fewer than 3,200 cases in all of 2010. At that pace, medical emergencies related to synthetic drugs could go up nearly fivefold by the end of the year.


“Many of the users describe extreme paranoia,” said Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center. “The recurring theme is monsters, demons and aliens. A lot of them had suicidal thoughts.”

The chemicals are suspected in at least nine U.S. deaths since last year, including 18-year-old David Rozga, an athlete and band standout from Indianola.

The young man got high last June on a marijuana look-alike product called “K2” and complained to a friend “that he felt like he was in hell,” his father, Mike Rozga, said.

Though the teen had never suffered from depression, he went home, found a shotgun and killed himself.

“These kids weren’t looking for anything bad to happen,” Mr. Rozga said. “The truth is they didn’t know what they had gotten themselves into.”

The recent surge in activity has not gone unnoticed by authorities. The Drug Enforcement Administration recently used emergency powers to outlaw five chemicals found in synthetic pot, placing them in the same category as heroin and cocaine.

But manufacturers are quick to adapt, often cranking out new formulas that are only a single molecule apart from the illegal ones.

Recreational drugs created in the laboratory have been around at least since the middle of the 20th century, when LSD was first studied. But these latest examples emerged only a few years ago, starting in Europe.

The products were typically made in China, India and other Asian nations and soon arrived in Britain and Germany, DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said.

In the United States, fake marijuana was last year’s big seller, marketed under brands such as “K2” or “Spice.” This year, the trend is “bath salts” with names like “Purple Wave” and “Bliss.”

Besides being cheap and easily obtained, they do not show up in common drug tests.

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