City continues to see increase in synthetic marijuana use

Matthew Adams

Since May 29, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Service has seen an increase use of synthetic marijuana in Austin.

According to the Austin American-Statesman, EMS officials said they have treated 277 patients who have been sickened by the drug. Synthetic marijuana, also known as Spice or K2, is a herbal and chemical mixture advertised to produce a similar feeling to using marijuana.

Veneza Bremner in the Austin Police Department Public Information Office said there is currently no statute regarding the possession of synthetic marijuana.

“Currently, it is not illegal to possess or use [synthetic marijuana],” Bremner said.

Bremner said that after the 84th Legislature, Senate Bill 172 would be enacted in September putting certain substances — including synthetic marijuana — under the Texas Controlled Substance Act for criminal prosecution.  

Rick Rutledge, captain of Travis County EMS, said while it is cheap for the drug user to get a reaction from synthetic marijuana, the supplier has the ability make a lot of money by repackaging the drug.

“Our organized crime unit officers told us [suppliers] will take this stuff over sheets or plastic and treat it with whatever,” Rutledge said. “Then they repackage it in the little trainee packs and make a huge amount of money.”

Cris Rodriguez, store manager of Pipes Plus on 24th Street, said when she worked at Planet K around 2009 they sold a substance similar to K2. She said it was great business but it was terrible for the buyer.

“It was awesome for sales. It was like the glory days,” Rodriguez said. “It was really good for the business and employees but it sucked for those who had a moral compass seeing people coming in haggard and looking worse.”

Rodriguez said the problem was not being able to stop people who wanted synthetic marijuana because they would find a way to get it.       

Rutledge said emergency medical services have responded to calls across town but the bulk of them were in the downtown area.

When dealing with K2, Rutledge said the effects are hard to recognize because they do not know what chemicals the supplier used to spray the substance with.

Rutledge said EMS responders saw users with increased blood pressure and heart rate, dilated pupils, seizures, panic attacks and being combative, after using the drug. But, since May 29, Rutledge said they have seen different reactions.

“After May 29 for awhile we had the opposite effect… decreased heart rate and blood pressure, comatose and a difficulty waking up,” Rutledge said.   

Rodriguez said some of the smoke shops around the UT campus believe the homeless community might be getting their hands on K2. Regarding businesses selling the drug, Rodriguez said she is glad smoke shops around campus do not sell it.

“I am glad most of us have the common sense to phase the product out,” Rodriguez said.

The only business Rodriguez said she is aware of that was caught for selling synthetic marijuana was Gas Pipe, a smoke shop chain with locations in Austin.    

Gas Pipe, with locations across Texas and New Mexico, was busted in June 2014 by the Drug Enforcement Agency for  selling K2. According to the Dallas Morning News, federal agents took control of $2.8 million, the Ridglea Theater in Fort Worth, several other real-estate properties, six cars and 11 Gas Pipe locations.

In May 2015, Gas Pipe Owner Gerald “Jerry” Shults and his daughter faced a 17-count federal charge for drug distribution and money laundering indictment with potential life sentences.

Employees at the Gas Pipe locations in Austin declined to comment.