Students. Parents. Educators. Community members. Please mark your calendars for Wednesday, March 30, for Futuro McAllen’s community presentation and panel discussion on synthetic drugs and our children.

This event will be held at the Nikki Rowe High School auditorium in McAllen, and the public is not only invited but strongly urged to attend. Doors open at 6 p.m., and the panel discussion runs from 6:30 p.m to 8 p.m.

Futuro’s David Girault will moderate the event. And although the agenda has not been finalized, panelists will include City of McAllen Chief of Police Victor Rodriguez, as well as emergency room physicians, psychiatrists, and representatives from Palmer Drug Abuse Program, and McAllen ISD.

MISD’s Instruction & Guidance Center

Since I first wrote about this crisis – YES, synthetic drugs ARE a crisis in the Rio Grande Valley (and in several cities across the nation) – in the February 10 issue of Valley Town Crier, I have learned even more and feel compelled to share it with you so we can protect our children.

Tony Harris, assistant principal at McAllen ISD’s Instruction & Guidance Center introduced me to some key people on his campus. I&G is the district’s alternative education site, where students attend school when they have broken district policies with the consequence of placement in the center. One person I met with at I&G was school nurse Linda Monday. Linda told me she has seen a dramatic increase in the use of synthetic drugs, often leading to trips to the emergency room, primarily due to the life-threatening rise in heart rate. She said other telltale symptoms include paranoia, aggression, extreme agitation, vomiting, and seizures.

There is a lure to these drugs, Linda said, because of how accessible they are and because they are so cheap. Linda is working diligently, along with the campus counselor and administrators and counselors from community agencies, to educate the students at I&G about the dangers of synthetic drugs.

Regional Stakeholder Symposium on Synthetic Drugs

Friday, February 26, I attended the Regional Stakeholder Symposium on Synthetic Drugs held at Knapp Medical Conference Center. Raymundo Del Bosque, chief deputy with the Zapata County Sheriff’s Office, served as keynote speaker. He shared information about Operation Kush-Free Zapata, a program started to address the crisis of synthetic drug use there. During his presentation, Chief Deputy Del Bosque told the audience they have a 13-year-old who remains in a coma as a result of using these drugs. (Kush is another name for Spice, K2, Scooby Snax, Cheesecake, a plant-based material sprayed with a wide range of chemicals.)

Jeremy SoRelle, border prosecutor for Willacy County addressed how, as laws ban the chemicals being used, those spraying the chemicals just change the compounds.

Cynthia Zaragosa, forensic scientist with the Texas Department of Public Safety, warned that one package of a certain brand, let’s say “Spice,” will be very different from another one because humans are spraying the chemicals on the plant-based material. She also informed those in attendance that while this drug is normally smoked, it is also being made into liquid form to “vape” in E-cigarettes.

Dr. Susan Dalterio from the University of Texas-San Antonio gave a startling statistic. She said this substance (often referred to as “synthetic marijuana” though those in the know call this a misnomer) is the third most popular drug among eighth graders. She also told the crowd that one hour after smoking it, there is a high chance of the child’s heart rate increasing five-fold. Dr. Dalterio went on to say that the product messes with serotonin, which is why there have been several suicides reported after the use of these drugs and that our children may become addicted to it within just two weeks. Dr. Dalterio reiterated what Cynthia Zaragosa said – be warned that there is a marked inconsistency among packets with the same name.

At the symposium in Weslaco, Pat Stein and Rick Berlin from the Texas Attorney General’s office shared information about the AG office’s work on prosecuting smoke shop owners who are selling it, with fines up to $20,000 per violation for “deceptive practices.” They are using this angle because the packages are marked “Not for human consumption,” “Potpourri” and in other deceptive ways in an attempt to make them legal. But it becomes illegal when they sell them, knowing they will be smoked or taken in another manner. They also said the AG’s office in Pharr is going to begin offering sessions on the topic of Spice.

Also at the Weslaco event, an employee of Knapp Medical Center spoke to the crowd, concerned about what Valley schools are doing to address this issue. In one day, he told the crowd, they had seven students from the same Valley school in their ER as a result of using this drug.

Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra

Over the past 1-2 months since I first started asking questions about Spice/K2/Scooby Snax/cheesecake/potpourri, etc., I have been told by far too many medical, law enforcement, school district, and treatment experts that this is a crisis. And in case you doubt it, last week, I interviewed Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra, and he told me one local teenager is confirmed to have died from using this drug, and it is suspected to be the cause in the deaths of two others.

“We need to bring awareness to our kids that just smoking it one time will likely put you in the hospital,” Sheriff Guerra told me, “and that this stuff is poison and can kill you.”

I wrote before about a press conference Sheriff Guerra, Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez, and Eddie Olivarez, chief administrative officer of Hidalgo County Health and Human Services, held in October of 2015. Sheriff Guerra told me last week that press conference was the result of a call he and Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia received from Mr. Olivarez.

“He called us because, in one week, over 20 people had been admitted to area hospitals as a result of bad reactions to this drug,” Sheriff Guerra told me. “All of them were kids, and several were on breathing machines.” The sheriff went on to explain why.

“They are often throwing up blood because blood is rushing into their lungs,” he said. “And their kidneys and liver often start shutting down.”

Sheriff Guerra said his office has already been working with Edinburg CISD to address the problem and to identify and arrest suppliers. He is adamant about educating our young people, parents, and our community.

Synthetic marijuana is a misnomer

The more I learn, the more uncertain I am as to what to call the drug. I know now that “synthetic marijuana” is a misnomer because it isn’t marijuana at all. That is the first thing our kids need to know. Most kids see marijuana as harmless, so if this is just a synthetic form of it, it must be harmless, too. There are countless names for it, as I shared above. Keeping up with them isn’t easy, and the names are purposefully “cute” and “harmless” so as to trick young people.

But as we now know, it is far from harmless. It is plant material sprayed with a host of chemicals, many of them deadly. It is also cheap, and it is far too easy to purchase, either online (Unbelievably, it currently is not illegal to do so.) or from suppliers in our schools and in our communities.

Before closing, I do want to add a few more things:

McAllen ISD has started holding mandatory seminars for school administrators and counselors to educate them on the drug. Participating in the Futuro McAllen event is another step in the district’s plan to address this Valley/American crisis.

Sheriff Guerra said it is imperative for our legislators to pass laws, quickly, to prohibit all forms of this deadly product that is sending countless children in the Rio Grande Valley to local emergency rooms…and some to their deaths.

Because we know that education is not only power but prevention, we need to get as many middle and high school students, parents, educators, federal/state/county/municipal elected officials, and community members to attend the Futuro McAllen event as possible.

I hope to see you all at this important event.

Editor’s Note: The above commentary was created by combining two guest columns written by Chris Ardis for the Valley Town Crier newspaper in McAllen, Texas. The above column is posted with the consent of the author and the newspaper.