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Synthetic marijuana is focus in death of Erie County Holding Center inmate

When India Cummings stole a car and crashed it into three vehicles and a school bus in Lackawanna on Feb. 1, she was high on synthetic marijuana and had been smoking it for weeks, friends and relatives believe.

Her erratic and violent conduct was unusual for the soft-spoken young woman, they say. But those are symptoms of people who abuse synthetic marijuana, also known as K2.

“You had to know something was wrong with India,” said Charnette Grayson, her godmother. “That day of her arrest was out of her character. Somebody gave her K2, and that’s what made her go out of her mind.”

Cummings, a Lackawanna resident, was arrested and taken to the Erie County Holding Center, where she suffered a medical emergency after being there for two weeks and died in a hospital four days later.

No one is saying that Cummings died because she was high on synthetic marijuana. The cause of her death is still being investigated.

But synthetic marijuana appears to be at the root of why she was arrested, according to friends and relatives. Doctors say that it’s a dangerous drug and that abuse is on the rise.

Synthetic marijuana is not what it sounds like. It is not marijuana, because it lacks THC, the active ingredient that experts say is responsible for the euphoria users experience. Synthetic marijuana, or K2, whose other names include Spice and Nice Guy, is a liquid chemical compound sprayed on dried leaves or plants that somewhat resembles conventional marijuana. It’s sold and packaged in small foil pouches as incense or potpourri. Some packets are labeled “Not for human consumption.”

“It’s not like street weed in a Ziploc baggie,” said Cheektowaga Police Lt. Thomas P. Gerace. “I don’t think people understand what the stuff really is.”

In the moments before her arrest, Cummings punched out a driver and dragged him from his car, said Lackawanna Police Capt. Joseph E. Leo. Her explosive behavior continued in the Holding Center, where – two days later – she punched a guard in the face and gave her a concussion, according to the Erie County Sheriff’s Office arrest report.

More than two weeks later, on Feb. 17, Cummings suffered a “medical event” and was taken to Buffalo General Medical Center, where the 27-year-old was placed on life support. She was pronounced dead Feb. 21.

Smoking synthetic marijuana can change brain function and alter perception, mood – even consciousness, said Dr. Gale R. Burstein, the county health commissioner.

“It’s a very dangerous substance. There are people who die from an overdose of the drug,” Burstein said. “Most commonly, it’s behavioral changes, anxiety, hallucinations, paranoia. Other effects are nausea and vomiting, increased heart rate, seizures.”

The intense “high” of synthetic marijuana lasts about 30 minutes, said one emergency physician.

“Because of varying compositions, the effects can last up to 8 to 12 hours,” said Dr. Joshua J. Lynch, of Kaleida Health and Erie County Medical Center. “It’s not unreasonable for someone who has smoked several times (to feel the effects) for more than a day. This is atypical, however.”

Lynch warned of the “supersymptoms” exhibited by some people who abuse synthetic marijuana.

“I’ve seen teenage girls break out of their restraints after smoking it,” he said. “They require so much sedation – extraordinary amounts of medication – to calm them down.”

On the day she was arrested, Cummings’ landlord, David Pintabona, said he saw her smoking “something more than pot in her car.” On several occasions prior to the incident, Pintabona said he fielded numerous complaints from tenants about a strong marijuanalike odor in the hallway outside Cummings’ apartment and pungent smoke coming from her apartment window.

The cause of Cummings’ death has not yet been determined, said family members who are waiting for autopsy results. The State Commission of Correction Medical Review Board has begun an investigation into her death.

New York State had more than an eightfold increase in emergency department visits – 4,700 between April 1 and Sept. 3 – related to the use of synthetic marijuana last year, according to the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.

In February 2014, several University of Buffalo students became sick after ingesting synthetic marijuana in brownies, said Sally A. Yageric, program coordinator for the Erie County Council for the Prevention of Alcohol and Substance Abuse. “Eight UB students sought treatment after they either smoked the substance or ingested it in a brownie,” Yageric said.

In March 2012, a state public health law made it illegal to sell synthetic marijuana. Stores found to be in possession of synthetic cannabis face a fine of $250 per packet, Burstein said.

“With repeat violators, we have the legal authority to shut them down,” she said.

In the past, K2 could be purchased at convenience stores, head shops, on the Internet and at the Super Flea and Farmers Market in Cheektowaga, Gerace said.

In January, a bill to strengthen state law governing sale, possession and use of synthetic marijuana was returned to the Legislature after stalling in the Assembly. Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan Jr., R-Huntington, with co-sponsors including Sens. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma and Michael H. Ranzenhofer, R-Amherst, the amended version passed the Senate on Jan. 25 and is back in the Assembly.

“Every time the state changes the schedule of controlled substances, the manufacturers change the composition,” Gerace said. “The new bill says the chemical components can be changed slightly and the substance would remain illegal as long as the purpose and core components stay the same.”

“It’s hard to detect exactly what synthetic marijuana is,” Yageric said. “If they smoke it once and it wasn’t harmful, the next time it may be. It doesn’t show up on a basic blood test.

“Parents need to know about this. It needs to be out there. Come on, it’s not just a plant.”