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More than 100 people filled the auditorium of Central Union Mission Tuesday evening to listen to prosecutors and health officials discuss the risks of abusing synthetic drugs.

The town-hall-style presentation was the second in a series of three such events planned at area homeless shelters this month, following a presentation on Aug. 6 at D.C. General. Lasting for about two hours, the gathering focused on the medical and legal consequences of using, selling, or otherwise possessing synthetic cannabinoids such as K2. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C. and the DC Prevention Center for Wards 5 & 6 arranged the talk.

“Despite innocent-sounding names like Spice and Scooby Snax, synthetic cannabinoids threaten public health and safety,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Vincent Cohen in a statement. “While we are committed to enforcing criminal laws, we also have a responsibility to educate the public.”

In June, about a dozen people overdosed on what officials suspect was synthetic marijuana near D.C.’s biggest shelter, Community for Creative Non-Violence. At Tuesday’s gathering, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kendra Briggs, who prosecutes crimes that occur in D.C.’s Fifth Police District, said many synthetic-drug overdoses in the past couple of months have been in or around homeless shelters. “It’s not just the young people [who have been overdosing],” she explained. “It just keeps changing. You don’t know what is in the bag; there’s no list of ingredients on it.”

The presentation began with a slideshow listing the health risks of consuming synthetic drugs, among them: brain damage, anxiety, depression, tremors, withdrawals, memory loss, vomiting, high blood pressure, seizures, heart attacks, and strokes. That’s not the kind of experience most people expect when they pick up one of the colorfully designed packages containing the drugs.

One man who spoke at the event said he had suffered a transient ischemic attack, or mini-stroke, “as a direct result of smoking Scooby.” Others shared their own experiences, including one man who said he’s noticed that synthetic drugs have changed from giving a “weed high” to “a heroin, PCP effect” since two or three years ago. A third man commented that the reason people buy and sell synthetic drugs is because they’re relatively cheap: You can divide a packet of “potpourri,” as the drugs are often called, among 20 people, charge $2 to $5 per hit, and still turn a profit.

“If you see it in stores, are you calling 911?” asked Wendy Pohlhaus, executive assistant U.S. attorney for external affairs. “I know you may not like snitching. You have a responsibility, too.”

Javon Oliver, the director of treatment services at the District Department of Behavioral Health, said it’s important to distinguish between traditional and “synthetic” marijuana, since the latter is a bit of a misnomer given the drug’s dangerous effects. Detoxification, or withdrawal-management, as well as psychological counseling and clinical-care coordination are some of the most effective interventions for helping users get clean, he added; the challenge is that treatment is voluntary.

“Treatment does work, but it can only work if that individual allows it to work,” Oliver said.

A majority of people in the audience raised their hands when Pohlhaus asked whether they thought synthetic drugs were dangerous at the end of the talk. The next event in the series will occur on Aug. 19 at the CCNV.

Photo by Andrew Giambrone