On Aug. 23, police in Brunswick reported that eight people got violently ill after smoking an herbal incense called Crazy Clown.
Three more people became ill the following weekend, and another case was reported early the next week, bringing the total stricken to 12 in this South Georgia incident.
Of these, 11 were hospitalized and many ended up in the ICU; at least one was put on life support.
Also last week, two probable new cases involving this substance were reported in Bartow County, which is in the northwest corner of metro Atlanta.
Health officials in Denver, Colo., have reported a surge in patients showing up in area emergency rooms who are agitated and violent after using this product.
According to reports of the incidents in Brunswick, users became physically stiff. One person supposedly tried to lean against a car but became fixed about 8 inches from the car and was frozen in that position when responders arrived.
Other symptoms described include agitation, rapid heartbeat, unconsciousness, nausea, foaming at the mouth and violent behavior.
Products such as Crazy Clown are substances that often are marketed as herbal incense, bath salts or plant food. These products often are sold in legal retail outlets and labeled “not for human consumption” in order to avoid FDA regulatory oversight of the manufacturing process and to mask their intended purpose.
Synthetic marijuana, often referred to as Spice, is another substance that lawmakers and law-enforcement personnel have been battling for years. It consists of plant material that has been sprayed with substances that users claim mimics the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana and is marketed toward young people as a “legal” high.
The alarmingly high use of synthetic marijuana has caught the attention of public officials across the nation. According to data from the 2011 Monitoring the Future survey of youth drug-use trends, Spice was the second most commonly used illicit drug among high-school seniors, with 11.4 percent of 12th-graders having used it in the past year.
Public-health officials say that some people who smoke herbal incense often are under the impression that it is synthetic marijuana. In reality, the ingredients are different and it is not any type of marijuana.
Currently, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is testing Crazy Clown at its labs to try and determine the product’s chemical makeup. The product’s legality cannot be determined until the chemicals are identified.
Herein lies the major problem with combating these products — identifying the chemicals that make up these substances.
During the past three legislative sessions, I have sponsored and passed into law legislation identifying certain chemical formulations used in these products and outlawing them in our state.
However, minor changes to the chemical makeup of these substances have created new but similar drugs not covered in the law.
In 2012, we erroneously thought we had solved the problem by identifying the base chemical compound used in the products, only to find out months later that a new base compound was being used with effects worse than the original.
The federal government also tried to ban these products and in October 2011, the Drug Enforcement Agency used its emergency-scheduling authority to classify some of the synthetic substances used in these products as Schedule 1 substances, meaning they cannot be sold legally.
Congress also has weighed in on the issue by passing several pieces of legislation concerning synthetic drugs.
However, regardless of state and federal efforts, this is one battle that we are finding very difficult to win.
As time goes on, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the approach we are taking — trying to identify chemical compounds used in these products — is not working.
The time has come for us to think outside the box. We must consider other ways to combat this growing epidemic.
We have overcome greater dilemmas in the past and, working together, we will overcome this one.
There is no giving up here — only working harder.
Carter can be reached at 421-B State Capitol, Atlanta, GA 30334. His Capitol office number is 404-656-5109. Connect with him online at facebook.com/buddycarterga or on Twitter @Buddy_Carter.