'Darkness' overdoses: What York needs to know

John Joyce
  • Dauphin County DA Ed Marsico said 20 people overdosed on synthetic marijuana in Harrisburg last week.
  • Local officials say the particular strain "Darkness" that hit Harrisburg so hard has not yet surfaced in York.
  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse said synthetic marijuana is plant matter sprayed with mind-altering chemicals meant to mimic marijuana.

Law enforcement officials say they are not seeing an increase in the use of synthetic marijuana in York County, despite a recent spate of overdoses in other parts of the state and across the country.

WellSpan York hospital officials, however, say they have seen a spike — as recently as in the past week — of patients suffering the effects of the sometimes-legal synthetic drug.

Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico issued a statement in Harrisburg Monday that said 20 state capital residents have overdosed in the past week after using a strain of synthetic marijuana called "Darkness," according to a report by the Associated Press.

'Darkness,' a brand of synthetic marijuana, is responsible for sending 20 people to Harrisburg emergency rooms with overdose symptoms in the last week, Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico said.

Symptoms reported by emergency room doctors in the area included advanced stages of delirium and victims having to be revived. One person ended up in intensive care, the AP report said.

Kyle King, a spokesman for the York County District Attorney's Office, said there have been no local reports of the strain mentioned by Marsico's office, but York County has in the past had its fair share of dealings with synthetic marijuana, sometimes called "Spice" or "K2."

"We have dealt with this for years," King said.

That said, officials at York Hospital said doctors have over the past week and half treated 15 patients in its emergency department whose "primary reason for their visit" included the use of synthetic marijuana, a spokesman said.

WellSpan communications specialist Dan Carrigan said the number of cases is well above the norm.

"This does represent an increase," he said. "Some of these cases were overdoses and involved the use of other drugs."

King said any time the DA's office encounters a new brand or type of synthetic marijuana it sends out a news release to warn the public. Depending on the packaging though, the sale and possession of these fake marijuana substances can be perfectly legal, he said.

The outcomes for people who use the products though, might not only result in a visit to the local ER; they can sometimes prove deadly.

A fatal attack: A Jackson Township woman, 30-year-old Regina Lester, is accused of killing her 3-year-old daughter in an alleged synthetic marijuana-induced episode on June 8. Neighbors in the Chesapeake Estates mobile home park said Lester ran out of her house naked and screaming that she had to "get the darkness" out of her daughter.

She then went to a neighbors house and knocked on the door. When the neighbor answered, Lester allegedly told them she was there to kill their kids as well.

Lester was restrained by two men in her front yard until police arrived, according to police reports.

Autopsy results showed Isabel Godfrey died of multiple injuries. Northern York County Regional police said at the time that Isabel's body was covered in bruises and that she had several deep bite marks on her torso.

Coroner: Toddler died of multiple injuries

What is 'Darkness?' According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, synthetic cannabinoids can contain chemicals that are loosely related to those found in the cannabis plant, which is why they are commonly referred to as synthetic marijuana or "fake weed." But the chemicals sprayed the loose plant materials that make up the synthetic brands are often more dangerous than the real thing, according to the NIDA web site.

People either smoke the plant material, mix it in with regular marijuana or use it to make tea, the web site said. NIDA officials said no experts were available to speak on this particular drug in time for this report, but said its website data was up to date and accurate.

The synthetic drugs contain mind-altering chemicals categorized as "new psychedelic substances," or chemicals manufactured to mirror the effects of illegal street drugs. A lot of times the chemical mixtures are unregulated and the synthetics they are used in are then sold on the open market. In some areas of the country, they are sold in gas stations, pipe shops and on the web and are sometimes packaged as "safe" or "natural" alternatives to marijuana, according to NIDA.

33 people hospitalized after K2 overdoses

Overdoses: Dr. David Vega is head of emergency medicine in WellSpan York Hospital's emergency department. He said when patients come in to the ER in the throws of a synthetic marijuana overdose, they are often suffering from psychosis and paranoia, thinking the doctors and nurses trying to help them are actually out to kill or injure them.

Vega said the patients are often irate, striking out at those around them. The physical symptoms such as dehydration and vomiting, elevated heart rate and delusions that can lead to violence or self harm are accompanied by this "detachment from reality," he said.

There are differing opinions on the long-term effects on those who ingest the psyochoactive substances used to make synthetic marijuana, the doctor said. Some people who use drugs like these can suffer continued effects including paranoia and other lasting psychological effects.

The main thing people need to understand is that synthetic marijuana is both more prevalent than most people might think, and that it is very addictive, Vega said.

"It is more common than people think it is. The packaging can make it seem harmless, they make it look like it is something fun and attractive for teens and adolescents," he said. "These (drugs) are extremely addictive. You might think you are going to just try a little bit, but people become addicted and then they move on to other drugs," Vega said.

Police: Spice-smoking man went 'berserk' on family and cops

Task Force: Det. Sgt. Craig Fenstermacher, head of the York DA's Office Drug Task Force, said it has been several months — barring an isolated incident in June where he recalled officers coming across a small amount of Spice in Hanover — since synthetic marijuana has reared its head in York County. But now and again someone with a connection to New York or to Harrisburg will bring some in and it will make the rounds, he said.

Bans and laws making the chemical compounds found in some of the strains illegal are effective in the short term, but a single change to the chemical compound can make an illegal substance legal again, he said.

The laws then have to be rewritten, making the fight against the manufactured drug more reactive than proactive.

"The people manufacturing it will change one small chemical compound to make it legal," Fenstermacher said. "Many times the chemical, the primary agent in it, is manufactured in China or in one of the Scandinavian countries, then it's brought over here," he said.

And it is those "unknown chemicals" that are the problem, he said, A person cannot tell by looking at the package or by looking at the substance itself what unknown chemicals have been sprayed on it. And although the chemicals might be unknown,  the reactions are often the same, Fenstermacher said

"Some people get a very violent reaction. They want to take their clothes off and do things they would not normally in their right mind do," he said. "And the problem is when the first responders, the cops and the medics show up, these people are fighting them. They bite and scratch them, and they are there to help them."

Most  retailers — the corner stores, the head shops and the cigar and tobacco store owners — have learned to stop carrying synthetics because they know it is bad for business, Fenstermacher said. But some places still might carry the "legal" packages, which are often shiny and geared toward marijuana smokers or to kids as a "safe alternative," he added.

"It's not weed. It's some kind of plant material sprayed with unknown chemicals," Fenstermacher said. "My word of advice is to stay away from it. It hurts people"

— Reach John Joyce at jjoyce2@yorkdispatch.comor on Twitter at @JohnJoyceYD