Smoking Synthetic Marijuana Is Dangerous But Common for SA’s Homeless | News Etc.
Amy has long blonde hair. She wears a pink leopard-print top and blue jeans with deep pockets. One blue cloth rosary hangs around her neck, a brown one wraps around her wrist. She's shoeless, and her feet are grimy. Blood has crusted around the rim of one of her big toenails. She has a deep cut above her left eye that's still healing. Instead of a scab, a small ball of dead skin has formed abnormally in the middle of the wound.
Amy is homeless, and she's trying to sell me synthetic marijuana outside the Pik Nik Foods convenience store on Commerce Street. The going rate is about $5 for a joint or $40 for a bag, which is roughly enough for five joints. Our potential transaction ends when I tell her I don't have any cash.
Amy, unconvinced that I was a reporter and not a cop, wouldn't tell me her last name. She says that she and her boyfriend sell two to three bags of synthetic marijuana a day, almost exclusively to other homeless people. She started selling the drug instead of panhandling, which police seldom allow in the Downtown area. And while she's aware of some of the risks, they haven't stopped her from smoking synthetic marijuana "all the time."
"If you have seizures you're not supposed to smoke it," Amy said. "If it's good shit it puts you to sleep and you pass out."
pre bonded hairThe problem is, it's not all good shit. Sometimes it's bad shit – really bad – and it has the potential to cause serious health problems. Sometimes it's fatal.
Synthetic marijuana isn't really marijuana at all. It's often marketed as potpourri or incense, and made out of a plant base that's then sprayed with a chemical cocktail. When smoked, it's supposed to emulate the effects of regular weed. Technically, most strains are illegal in Texas, but manufacturers can skirt laws that ban the substance by slightly altering the chemical composition of their spray.
Even as the state has led efforts to stifle synthetic marijuana usage in Texas – notably through a 2015 law meant to cast a wider net for potential chemical compounds – the drug's popularity among San Antonio's homeless population has surged over the past year or so.
The reasons for this are practical and market-driven. Synthetic marijuana – primarily called Klimax on San Antonio streets but also Kush, Spice, K2 and other names – is cheap, readily available, potent and tough to be prosecuted for. It's an ideal drug for people with few resources who struggle with mental health issues or substance abuse.
"I can make five bucks in five minutes. Then I can smoke something so that I can escape for four hours," said Brian Clark, assistant medical director of restoration services at the Center for Health Care Services. "I don't have a dollar to my name, I don't know where my kids are, I have Hepatitis C or HIV ... Why wouldn't I want to escape? What else do they have to look forward to? It's a quality buy."
The center primarily treats homeless people and others who are unable to pay for their own care, and Clark's unit specializes in patients with drug and alcohol problems. Of the roughly 600 patients Clark and his colleagues treated in September 2014, only eight reported using synthetic marijuana. That number shot to 223 by July 2015, and though it's decreased some since then, Clark claims that usage is still rampant.
'He Was a Good Person'
Smoking synthetic marijuana can have serious consequences for the health of its users. But the allure of a cheap, deep high is sometimes too much to resist.
"If you're on Kush, your voices go away. So you can chill, you can sleep, if you have the right dose," said David Miramontes, medical director for the San Antonio Fire Department. "You don't feel that pain, that depression ... This is an escape from all those things that they view as problematic."
Between 2010 and 2015 the Texas Poison Control Network received over 3,500 calls reporting synthetic marijuana exposures. Many of those reports included symptoms such as confusion, vomiting and agitation. More serious symptoms included seizures, hallucinations and tremors. The most common symptom was an abnormally rapid heart rate. Only four of the calls – less than a tenth of a percent – resulted in deaths.
Experts say that smoking synthetic marijuana just once can be enough for serious long-term effects.
remy hair extensions"A lot of times they can have prolonged psychosis, which is very hard to treat. It has changed the chemical structure and the electric system in the brain, so now they have a psychosis similar to schizophrenia," Miramontes said. "We have a number of cases ... that have been very hard to manage. It's taken up to a year to get themselves in control so they can function in the community. Very horrific damage was caused."
Part of the problem is that the drug's volatile nature means effects can differ between both users and batches. The lack of quality control makes every toke like playing Russian roulette.
"First of all we don't know what the leaves are, second we don't know what the drug is. So there's no quality control, there's no dose control. You get a 10 milligram Percocet, you know you've got 10 milligrams in there. You've got no idea with this stuff, that's why it's so easy to overdose," Miramontes said.
Tina Pihota believes that's what happened to her son, Joseph, who died on May 3, 2015 in Lavaca County. Both he and his mother lived in San Antonio then.
Tina said her son, 28 at the time of his death, had been smoking lots of synthetic marijuana up until he died.
"He smoked it every day, all day, for five months. If he didn't smoke every 15 to 20 minutes he was getting sick," Pihota said. "It made him paralyzed, almost motionless like he was stuck in the same position for maybe 15, 30 minutes. It kind of made him dumb, like simple."
Pihota died in the custody of local police after they found him running around in a field and acting erratically, according to the Victoria Advocate. Pihota was a father and struggled with drug addiction in the past. After his death, Tina started a foundation to raise awareness about the drug's risks and keep kids away from it.
"I started [the foundation] to give his death meaning, I wanted to honor him somehow. He wasn't just a drug addict, he was a good person," Pihota said.
Five Bucks a Joint
Pihota said her son would buy synthetic marijuana under the table from local gas stations and head shops. Of the list of over a dozen businesses she'd been told sell it, none were willing to sell to this reporter. Most vehemently denied stocking it, or appeared confused when asked for Klimax or Spice.
"The stores that sell this are very savvy," Miramontes said. "Bob homeless guy – [they] know Bob. Bob comes every morning and he gets his Kush and his Monster drinks ... You go in that same store, you say 'Hey, I want some Kush,' the store owner doesn't know you. They're smart. They know their population and their base."
Even if a business were to be found selling synthetic marijuana, it's difficult to prosecute since the tests to verify the legality of the chemical structure can be time-consuming and expensive. Law enforcement may hesitate to commit resources to stop a crime that may not be fruitful.
perruques cheveux naturelsA study conducted by San Antonio Emergency Medical Services showed that most of the psychosis or overdose calls related to synthetic marijuana came from the 78207 ZIP code, which encompasses the area west of Downtown, including Haven for Hope.
Sitting on a curb a couple blocks from Haven, Charles Dennis, 53, said he's smoked synthetic marijuana several times, "just to see what it's like."
"It's a different high, but I'd rather have regular weed," Dennis said.
Dennis is a homeless alcoholic who used to roof and remodel houses. He grew up in South Carolina, left school in the 10th grade, and developed a drinking problem shortly afterwards that he's never been able to shake.
Wearing a short, gray beard and pristine, white New Balances, Dennis labored to shuffle through the streets near the new Centro Plaza where homeless people often congregate, asking for change or to buy him a beer.
He described the high from synthetic marijuana, which he buys at Downtown gas stations or from other homeless people, as debilitating.
"I used to shingle roofs after smoking regular weed," he said. "I ain't getting on no roof after smoking Klimax."
There were two marches in San Antonio on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. One is often billed as the largest in the country. The other was a show of direct action.
Organizers say that this year approximately 300,000 people showed up for San Antonio's annual MLK march, which starts at the MLK Freedom Bridge, travels 2.75 miles up Martin Luther King Drive and ends at Pittman Sullivan Park on the historic East Side.
"Each year, hundreds of thousands of people join the City of San Antonio in its commemoration to reflect on the lasting impact of Dr. King's teachings and why it is important to continue honoring this notable civil rights leader," Mayor Ivy R. Taylor said in a post-march press release touting its success. "I am proud that our city continues to host one of the largest marches in the country honoring Dr. King."
Taylor, along with a contingent of other VIPs, including Sen. John Cornyn, Chief of Police William McManus, Sheriff Susan Pamerleau and many other state and local officials were at the head of the march.
Then there was a much smaller group marching, too. A handful of activists from the Black Lives Matter movement — maybe 10 to 15, wearing black shirts that said "I am Marquise Jones. If you don't know, ask me." — crept up behind the politicians right before the march started and began chanting while holding a black banner that read "Arrest Robert Encina."
Encina is a San Antonio Police Department officer who was off duty and working security at Chacho's and Chalucci's on the city's northeast side on February 28, 2014, when he shot and killed 23-year-old Marquise Jones in the restaurant's drive-thru. The vehicle Jones was in had been involved in a fender bender.
The police department maintains that Jones displayed a handgun and exited the vehicle while Encina was speaking to the driver. Jones' family says he was shot in the back, and they allege that the gun police found had no fingerprints on it. In December, a grand jury declined to indict Encina on any charges. That same month, a grand jury also declined to indict two Bexar County sheriff's deputies who shot and killed Gilbert Flores during a disturbing incident captured on cellphone video.
Standing with the activists and holding onto the banner was Deborah Bush, Jones' aunt. Many of Jones' family members, including his mother and father, were at the march.
"I totally believe that if MLK was alive today he would be totally against what's going on here," Bush said. "There's black men dying all over the country at the hands of our so-called police departments and they turn this march and stuff into a celebration. This is not a celebration. There's young men dying and my nephew happens to be one who has died."
perruques cheveuxYet the mood of the city-sponsored march was celebratory. Before it started, gospel music blared from speakers at the Martin Luther King Academy, adjacent to the eponymous bridge. There were men selling T-shirts and others selling popcorn. There was a voting drive. People wore shirts advertising whatever candidate or politician they supported. Nonprofits from around town toted signs and shirts promoting their messages. Others wore the logos of the companies they worked for. There were fraternal orders and politicians who mulled through the crowds shaking hands and smiling. Babies were probably kissed.
But then the Black Lives Matter activists let the bullhorns rip. They chanted "No justice, no peace" and broke through the VIP ranks. They passed the chief of police, sheriff and mayor, and they marched up Martin Luther King Drive toward Pittman Sullivan Park, leaving the nation's largest MLK Day parade to drive into the distance behind them.
An SAPD officer followed with a video camera. Another officer briefly tried to speak with one of the Black Lives Matter organizers as they marched forward. Yet another officer, in plain clothes, shadowed the protestors throughout the route. The larger march followed about a quarter of a mile behind.
Alan E. Warrick II, the councilman who represents the area, marched in front of the larger parade with the city's first African-American mayor. He's wholly cognizant of the problems faced in his district, which Taylor used to represent.
"We are the most economic and racially segregated city in the country," Warrick said.
Of the 22 elementary schools in his district, all perform poorly.
"There's a disparity in our educational system," he said.
Then there are the 2,200-plus vacant homes.
"Of course, we have the highest incidence of gun violence. Not the entire district, but pockets," Warrick said. "I think it's unacceptable."
Warrick has lobbied for shot-spotter gunfire technology, which allows police to respond to incidents of shots fired quicker and creates more effective policing, Warrick says, citing Washington D.C., Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Miami Gardens, Florida, as cases where the technology helped reduce gun violence.
Warrick says he had hoped the technology would already be deployed, but it won't be implemented until April. He says it can't come quickly enough. Less than a week before the march, there was a rolling shoot-out in the area that left one dead.
lace front wigsAs Warrick marched with thousands of others, the gap between the parade and the Black Lives Matter activists filled in with people, and it began to look like one march as the route neared its end.
Recordings of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I have a Dream" speech began to blend with chants of "No justice, no peace" and "Hands up, don't shoot." The activists asked onlookers to raise their fists if they believed black lives matter. People of all colors raised their fists in solidarity along the route.
When they reached the top of a hill where Martin Luther King Drive T-bones into Pittman Sullivan Park, the activists turned and faced the rest of the march with chants as it arrived at its final destination. San Antonio Police Department squad cars that heralded the annual march arrived with flashing lights. A little African-American girl in a pink shirt riding in the back of one of the squad cars driven by a black policeman raised her fist out of the window in solidarity while the officer driving smiled. The protestors lingered for about 15 minutes before dispersing into the park to join others in listening to speakers discuss civil rights and Dr. King's legacy, while vendors sold food and goods and music blared.
The march's keynote speaker, Hill Harper, an author and actor, called Jones' family and Black Lives Matter organizer Mike Lowe onto the stage to recognize them and to remember Jones.
The public recognition at the media-dense event for the family and the activists at the march was an unusual blend of civics and activism in the Alamo City — a fitting way for both marches to end.
But that was just one day out of 365 in 2016.
Problems of violence and poverty and disparity in educational systems and in economics exist all year round.
"No matter how many celebrations you do and what's going on, the problem is still there," Bush said. "They could come out to this type of thing and make it the largest march in the nation, [but] why can't they come out here and do a large protest against the injustices that are in this city?"
cosplay wigsSimply showing up once a year to honor MLK is nice, but as Dr. King pointed out, equality and freedom take constant work.
"Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle," King once said. "And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can't ride you unless your back is bent."
That's something Jones' family takes to heart.