North Texas student death tied to resurgence of synthetic marijuana

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by BRETT SHIPP / WFAA

WFAA

Posted on October 30, 2013 at 8:20 AM

Garland police and the Dallas County Medical Examiner are investigating the death of a 17-year-old Plano West High School student — a death that appears to be, in part, related to a designer drug outlawed across the nation last year.

It’s commonly referred to as "K2" or "Spice," and while those specific products are no longer being sold over–the-counter in North Texas, another form of synthetic marijuana is — and it may be responsible for Oscar Maldonado’s death three weeks ago.

"He was smoking with some friends, and he started coughing and coughing,” said Veronica Martinez, Oscar’s aunt. “Then he started throwing up, and that's when he passed out. His heart stopped beating."

After about 15 minutes, she said Oscar's friends took him to the hospital. Doctors tried to revive him. They could not.

What he was smoking the night he died is the subject of a WFAA investigation.

While most forms of synthetic marijuana were outlawed last year, law enforcement officials are scrambling once again. The dangerous — in some cases deadly — high is being sold in head shops and convenience stores all over North Texas.

It used to be called “the legal high." It was easy to buy. A three-gram package of the fake weed was given a variety of names.

The problem was, no one really knew what they were smoking or ingesting until it was too late.

The "legal high" became an epidemic, and emergency rooms were filled with its users.

Lawmakers and law enforcement became involved.

"People are taking this drug without knowing how concentrated it is, what it will do to themselves,” said Valerie Kamb with the Johnson County, Kansas, Sheriff’s Department.

Kamb is a national expert on legal, synthetic drugs. “Along with these drugs, we often see extreme agitation, extreme paranoia. We see the heart rate, the blood pressure and the body temperature of the smokers skyrocketing; the erratic behavior, the violent behavior up to and including death."

Kamb and others provided critical input to state and federal lawmakers, who — in 2012 — helped criminalize the chemical compounds being used in designer drugs.

Authorities have determined the chemicals being sprayed on the fake weed usually comes from China. The product is mixed and packaged mostly in non-nondescript warehouses across the country.

Dealers were getting shut down. The market for synthetic marijuana went up in smoke.

But not for long.

Almost every head shop we visited in Dallas and Plano in the past week was selling it. While merchants call it "herbal incense," authorities say it actually is a new, reformulated brand of synthetic marijuana.

We paid $20 for a three-gram package of a product called “Freedom." It appeared to be a reformulated chemical that skirts existing laws outlawing K2. Authorities say it is likely equally as mind-altering... and equally as dangerous.

"They may have smoked this one time and be fine,” said Dan Salter, Special Agent in Charge of the Dallas Field Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration. “What’s troubling is, smokers may get a batch that is sprayed lightly. But the next time — since there is no quality control — they may get a strong dose, and the next thing you know they are going into convulsions and have high blood pressure, or elevated heart rate, or vomiting, or become delusional."

And that's what has Jim Skelton of Allen upset. He recently caught his 20-year-old stepson using an herbal incense called “Headhunter 2.0."

"He says it doesn't do anything, it's not the same, it's not a drug,” Skelton said.  “But at the time, you tell me it's not illegal, that it's not a drug? Then why do you smoke it?"

Skelton says a Plano head shop called The Gas Pipe is where he bought the package of Headhunter 2.0. We wanted to find out if and why they are selling it.

A clerk told us that particular product, Headhunter 2.0 was banned last summer. He called it an herbal incense.

Yet in a glass case a few feet away, he showed us a wide array of a new product — again classified as “herbal incense." 

While drug agents may not know exactly what's being sold today, they fear that until it also is outlawed, it will have the same result — bad trips, and — in some cases — trips to the emergency room.

“They take these drugs because they are legal," Kamb said. "If they are legal, then they assume they are safe, and that is the worst assumption anyone can make."

E-mail bshipp@wfaa.com

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