SOSNOWIEC, POLAND — Four paramedics wrestle with a teenager, trying to bind him to a hospital bed. He is rigid, contorted and sweaty, fingers clenched and bloodshot eyes wide. “Let me go!” he screams.
The dramatic scene, part of a Polish government public service announcement, accurately portrays scenes that have played out in hospitals in the southern region of Silesia hundreds of time this summer, said Dr. Tomasz Klopotowski, head of the Regional Center of Acute Poisoning in Sosnowiec — save one important detail.
“Patients never screamed to let them go but yelled out the worst profanities known to a man,” Dr. Klopotowski said. “Some were able to rip apart the limb restraints. It was a nightmare.”
Almost 1,000 people were poisoned here in July and August — at least two fatally — by so-called designer drugs, concocted by chemists to mimic the psychoactive effects of marijuana, cocaine, LSD and other illicit substances. These new drugs started spilling onto global markets around 2008, at first legal and uncontrolled. Poland found itself at the forefront in battling the worldwide epidemic, which is now affecting at least 70 countries, after it imposed a ban on the sale of new psychoactive substances in 2010.
But the latest outbreak of poisonings has refocused national attention on the synthetic compounds and punctured official confidence that the problem had been adequately addressed.
Regulators in almost all European countries — most notably in Britain, Ireland and Spain — as well as in Australia, Japan and the United States, are also grappling with the problem. Synthetic marijuana, also known as spice or K2, has recently caused poisoning outbreaks in New York, Texas and New Orleans.
The first poisonings in Silesia occurred over the second weekend of July. More than 200 people, mostly teenage boys exhibiting side effects like psychotic behavior and abnormal strength, were hospitalized. Many of them had used a synthetic cannabinoid that in some instances proved hundreds of times stronger than marijuana.
Marian Zembala, Poland’s health minister, said that the Silesian poisonings were an inadvertent consequence of an amendment to the country’s drug law that went into effect July 1 and added 114 drugs to the list of outlawed substances.
country’s drug law that went into effect July 1 and added 114 drugs to the list of outlawed substances. As a result, drug dealers started unloading large quantities of the newly illegal substances at below-market prices and introducing new chemicals that were not on the outlawed list.
“We did anticipate it, but the scale of it shocked us,” Mr. Zembala said.
A recent analysis by the European Drug Emergencies Network found that only 9 percent of all drug-related emergencies in 10 European countries in 2014 involved new psychoactive substances, a figure that officials expect to rise steeply in 2015. Since 2008, the number of synthetic cannabinoids, cathinones (“bath salts”) and opioids reported to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has soared more than eightfold to 541, far outpacing the 244 traditional drugs controlled under global conventions.
In the increasingly borderless world of e-commerce, and as a result of scientific progress, designer drugs are quickly gaining ground in the illicit drug trade, said Dr. Guohua Li, founding director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia University.
“If we do nothing, in five years or so they are going to overtake plant-based and traditional drugs,” Dr. Li said.
Poland was one of the first countries in Europe to start systematically addressing the problem. In 2010, after a much smaller outbreak of poisonings, the Polish government almost overnight outlawed all new psychoactive substances and closed nearly 1,400 retail shops. It drove the local manufacturers into hiding for about two years. But the drugs began appearing on the market again in 2013 and have grown more popular.
In 2010, there were just over 500 poisonings related to synthetic drugs. That doubled in 2013, and in the first eight months of this year, there were more than 5,350 poisonings and at least 20 people died. Mariusz Wisniewski, a teacher and social worker from Rybnik, a mining city where designer drugs are popular, said that last year he attended the funerals of eight former pupils who were either poisoned or, he believes, driven to suicide by the drugs.
“Our teenagers used to smoke marijuana or do amphetamines before they realized they can screw themselves up with something cheaper and easier to access,” Mr. Wisniewski said.
Designer drugs are often more addictive and cause more psychiatric disorders than traditional drugs, including heroin, experts say.
“This stuff messes with your head,” said Sylwia Wielgus, 26, who used to smoke the highly potent synthetic cannabinoids. “I wanted to forget a lot, like fighting with my parents, running away from home.”
But years of synthetic drug abuse left her with brain damage.
“I can’t remember when I was 9, 10, 11 or 12,” she said. “These drugs stole half of my life.”
One of the biggest problems regulators face is to legally define new psychoactive substances as they spill onto the market. Poland, like Ireland, introduced the broadest possible definition, called a blanket ban, outlawing any substance of natural or synthetic origin that is used as a replacement for traditional drugs. Such bans are becoming more popular, with Britain’s government now pushing to adopt one. The problem, said Justice Tettey, chief of the laboratory and scientific section of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, is that “it’s a nightmare to implement.”
Banning any substance that can be used to replace traditional drugs could accidentally impede or even end many clinical trials, Mr. Tettey said. According to the latest European drug report by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, four of the newest psychoactive substances are also used as active ingredients in medicine.
If any of them is added to the list of outlawed substances, research on it will be restricted for months until a pharmaceutical company gets a license, which can cost thousands of dollars.
Substances in the synthetic drugs are also used in industrial paints, varnishes or concrete.
“We can’t put the whole cement industry on hold because some of its intermediate products are used to make drugs,” said Igor Radziewicz-Winnicki, Poland’s deputy health minister.
Poland adds new chemicals to the illegal list one by one. But all that manufacturers of synthetic drugs need to do to evade that regulation is tweak the molecular structure of the existing illegal drug to create one that is not banned. That search for new chemicals is leading them toward some that are harmful — as apparently happened in Silesia.
Since little is known about the effects of the new drugs, they can be more dangerous than traditional illegal substances, whose dosage levels are well known.
“The effects of taking heroin have been examined and described by numerous sciences,” said Michal Kidawa, an analyst for Poland’s National Bureau for Drug Prevention. “People know how to take it to get a desired effect. Taking designer drugs is like playing Russian roulette.”
In 2013, New Zealand temporarily legalized 41 synthetic drugs on the condition that their manufacturers conduct clinical trials to find the least harmful substances. But the experiment ended after one year, after media reports about increases in the use of the drugs and political pressure.
“We need to be reducing not just supply but demand,” said Mr. Tettey of the United Nations office. “We need to make people realize that they can never know what they are taking and how it will affect them.”
By Johanna Berhendt - NY Times/Oct 14, 2015
Dear Drugs-Forum readers: We are a small non-profit that runs one of the most read drug information & addiction help websites in the world. We serve over 4 million readers per month, and have costs like all popular websites: servers, hosting, licenses and software. To protect our independence we do not run ads. We take no government funds. We run on donations which average $25. If everyone reading this would donate $5 then this fund raiser would be done in an hour. If Drugs-Forum is useful to you, take one minute to keep it online another year by donating whatever you can today. Donations are currently not sufficient to pay our bills and keep the site up. Your help is most welcome. Thank you.