Rochester, N.Y.—More than year ago, Dr. Bryan Gargano, the medical director of Adult Emergency Department at Rochester General Hospital knew very little about synthetic drugs. It wasn’t something he would see his patients use.
Now, he’s all too familiar with drugs like bath salts and artificial marijuana. More and more patients are coming into the ER at RGH with signs of artificial drug use.
“We see about two to three patients a day for this problem,” says Gargano. “A lot of it is younger adults and adolescents who don't think it's a big deal.”
Strong Memorial Hospital has also seen an increase in artificial drug cases as well. According to the New York state Attorney General Eric Schniderman, Strong has seen approximately a 200 percent increase in synthetic drug cases since 2010.
A Strong Hospital spokesperson says last month they were seeing, on average, two to three cases a week. Now the number has dropped slightly to one to two.
It’s unknown why there is a discrepancy between Strong’s number and RGH’s, however it may speak to the fact that synthetic drugs are hard to detect in the body and doctors can have a hard time finding out what the patient use to end up in the ER.
“The biggest challenge with the synthetic drugs is that we don't know what [the patients] are going to do and we have no good way of testing for [the drugs],” says Gargano. “Also, there is no good way of treating them.”
Dr. Gargano gives an example.
“Usually in a patient [who experiences a psychotic episode] we would give them some medication called an anti-psychotic. That would make them better if they have a true mental illness, but [with bath salts], it's drug induced and actually it makes it worse and makes them more violent.”
Gargano also says that now more people are seeking rehabilitation services for synthetic drug addiction.
"We've had people come in seeking rehab for [things like bath salts] which is a whole new problem, because not many places consider having rehab for it."
Jennifer Faringer, the local director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency, says she now gets frequent requests from schools and community groups to talk to students and young adults about synthetic drugs. From the stories she hears, she says the problem is growing.
“We're hearing about a lot of use and the use is around the perception that these products are somehow legal,” she says.
For the first time ever in 2011, the University of Michigan included “Synthetic Marijuana” as an option in their “Monitoring the Future Survey”. The survey looks at which medications and drugs are most commonly used by high school seniors.
Marijuana came first and in just the first year it was presented as an answer option, synthetic marijuana followed behind second. It beat out drugs like Adderall, Ecstasy, OxyContin and inhalants.
Faringer says not everyone who uses synthetic drugs ends up at the hospital, so it isn’t completely clear how many people are using them. However, she fears the problem is a lot worse than most people realize.
“We don't have the full picture. We’re expecting that the numbers we do have are likely the tip of the iceberg.”