By Shachar Peled and Paul LeBlanc
LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. — One hundred and two people in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, overdosed on synthetic marijuana in three days, according to C. Robert May, director of Lancaster Emergency Medical Services. None of the overdoses were fatal.
“Heroin is normally the issue but in the last week there’s been an overdose of synthetic marijuana,” also known as K2, May told CNN. “The assumption is that heroin is not readily available, so people are turning to K2.”
The treatment of the overdose patients took place between the morning of July 7 through the morning of July 10. More overdoses followed — by the following Friday, July 14, a total of 158 overdose patients were involved in emergency response calls.
According to May, some calls involve two to four patients at once, with a few patients repeating in a span of a few hours.
“This past weekend we responded to one patient nine times in 24 hours,” May said.
In the past six months in Lancaster County, heroin overdoses were averaging eight a day, May said. Over the last week, emergency services responded to 25 synthetic marijuana overdoses a day — about one an hour — in public bathrooms, parking lots, residential homes, on the street and in the parks.
“It’s all over the place,” May said.
Synthetic marijuana, also known as fake weed, K2 or spice, is a mixture of herbs, spices or shredded plant material laced with chemicals similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Because the drug is a mixture, the effects it can have on a person vary. Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said it can often lead to violent behavior.
“I have heard numerous stories from doctors, medics and police officers who encountered a very violent and erratic person under the influence of synthetic marijuana,” he said.
May added that the lack of quality control of chemicals in the drug generates “really sick patients” who are often found unconscious and must be sent to intensive care, while others “are combative and put us at risk,” said May.
He also described the financial burden on the Lancaster Emergency Medical Services, a non-profit, as well as the collateral impact.
“It’s overwhelming our resources and we have a very busy system to begin with. The high numbers of overdoses delay response times to other emergencies,” May said.
Many overdose patients of the past week were in their 20s, said May, ranging in age from mid-teens up to early 30s. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, use of synthetic marijuana is particularly popular among teens and young adults seeking a cheap alternative to marijuana or a new experience with a hallucinogenic drug.
K2 has led to mass overdoses before, including in Brooklyn in 2016 when 33 people were sent to the hospital after suspected overdoses on synthetic weed.
“Teens who use synthetic cannabinoids, really, it’s playing a game of Russian roulette,” Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City told CNN in March. “Typically they become very aggressive and violent in the ER and often require chemical (sedation) if not physical restraint.”