At McAllen High School, some 500 seniors trickle into the school’s auditorium. There’s a special guest here today – Dr. Ricardo Irizarry. He’s a physiatrist and drug expert from South Texas Behavioral Health. One of his specialties is helping teens struggling with synthetic marijuana.
As he takes the stage, Irizarry says he’s here to talk about the dangers, myths and effects of these drugs.
“I have kids 13, 14 and 15 years old who end up in the hospital who last for two weeks in a psychotic break,” he says.
After he’s left the stage, Irizarry tells me high school seniors and college freshmen are most at risk of using these drugs.
“I’m seeing around six or seven adolescents every week that have been admitted to the hospital with synthetic cannabinoids withdrawal or intoxication,” he says.
“Something’s going on in The Valley. I don’t know what. But yes, you’ve definitely got a problem down there,” Jane Maxwell says.
Maxwell is from the University of Texas at Austin. She’s a drug expert who, for decades, has studied the patterns of substance abuse across Texas. She says recently, these drugs have hit the Rio Grande Valley region pretty hard.
“I don’t know if it’s the influence of a lot of these drugs coming across from Mexico, or what,” she says.
Whatever it is, it’s causing a lot of problems. The latest data from the Texas Poison Control Center shows 17 percent of calls about synthetic marijuana came from the Rio Grande Valley. Almost 1 in every 5 calls in a state as large as Texas came from here.
One reason for the proliferation of these types of drugs is that they used to be legal – or, better said, unregulated. Legislation that outlawed around 1,000 chemical compounds became effective this past September.
But Maxwell is not impressed. She says the new regulations have loopholes.
“Okay if you’re going to make formula A, B and C illegal, I’ll add an oxygen molecule to B and therefore I’m legal again,” she says. “It’s kind of a race to see who can stay legal and who can invent new chemical versions.”
Combating synthetic drugs, to many, feels like an uphill battle.
But McAllen ISD is not giving up. One way they’re fighting it is with presentations like the one Dr. Irizarry gave at the beginning of this story. The district also has a program called ‘Family Treatment’ for students who need more help. The program was originally funded by a Department of Education grant. But when that money dried up, McAllen ISD decided to stay committed to it and fund it in house.
Adrian Garza leads the program.
“(We’re) more of a facilitator of mental health services,” Garza says.
Family Treatment connects those seeking help to a variety of community organizations.
“They offer anything from prevention, which would be group sessions,” he says. “Also, you know, one-on-ones, face-to-face sessions, but we have some programs who offer licensed chemical dependency counseling, which is key in those cases for children who may be addicted to synthetic or other drugs.”
It may seem like a drop in the bucket, but McAllen ISD wants to keep up the fight against synthetic drugs even as new compounds hit the market every day.