PARAGOULD, Ark. — He thought it was a safe alternative to marijuana, but when 41-year-old Jay woke up sober one morning and realized he had lost everything to synthetic marijuana, he decided it was time to quit.
"It looks like marijuana, but feels worse than crack," said the Paragould resident, who declined to give his last name for an article in The Jonesboro Sun (http://is.gd/6L9PcS ). "It makes you feel total doom, like you know you're going to die, but you have to have it. I lost everything I cared about in my life, my relationship with my daughter, my 401(k), five-bedroom home, land, vehicles, my mechanic business — everything."
The synthetic marijuana or "fake weed" is known as potpourri, or "pope," because of the sweet aroma it gives off when smoked. It's similar to K2 and Spice.
Experts say it's a leafy substance that, when smoked, generates a roughly 20-minute high that some compare to marijuana or even heroin.
"You don't think about anything else, you know? You don't care about calling your daughter up and seeing how she's doing; you don't care if your neighbor needs a hand with something," Jay said. "All you care about is where you can get 10 more dollars' worth of pope."
Jay said he had a home, tended to his land, worked on vehicles and was constantly helping people with home repairs or other odd jobs. It kept him busy.
But every $10 sack of pope he bought meant that his belongings ended up in pawn shops. He said that continued until all he had left was a pillowcase filled with clothes and a plastic sack filled with toiletries.
"My credibility is one of the greatest things I lost," he said. "People used to call me to work on cars all the time to the point where that's all I was doing. Now every tool I own is in the pawn shop. I spent 20 years building up my toolbox, and now nobody asks me to work on cars anymore."
Jay said friends introduced him to pope about two years ago.
They told him it was like marijuana, but it couldn't be detected in a drug screening. Around that time the drug was taken off shelves in local gas stations and tobacco stores and became illegal in many states, including Arkansas.
"Two years ago when all this started, I had a good 50 friends," he said. "And if you look back a couple months ago, I probably had 10 good friends, and all 10 of those good friends were still on pope. Right now I have one who isn't addicted to it. That's who I'm surrounding myself with — and family."
Sgt. Scott Snyder, a detective with the Paragould Police Department, said in 2010 there was a temporary ban of K2, pope and Spice, and the synthetic drugs have since been added to the Arkansas criminal code.
He said even though pope is classified as a Schedule 6 controlled substance in Arkansas, the same as marijuana, it is closer to methamphetamines or LSD.
"It is not a safe alternative to marijuana; it's not even comparable to it. It's as pervasive as and more widely used than methamphetamines ...," Snyder said. "I did a search last Friday on a guy I've known most of my life who is now addicted to the stuff. He literally thought he was in Alice in Wonderland and said pope is the Mad Hatter. He kept yelling, 'Don't go in the hole!' This guy lost everything to pope, and he's so far gone, he'll probably never come back."
The Paragould detective said the drug has reached epidemic levels in the town of about 27,000 people.
Jay said that after the drug became illegal, people began making it out of catnip and ant and roach spray, or any other chemical that can be sprayed on a leafy substance.
"From my understanding, it's some sort of industrial strength powder, and they're mixing it with acetone and spraying it on catnip," he said.
"I was at a dealer's house one day when I saw her add borax to the catnip. I was so messed up on pope at the time, I considered trying it myself, but thankfully never did."
Snyder said that since the drug is now made underground, there is no quality control involved.
"Slowly I think the Legislature will pass a bill deeming the drug more dangerous and illegal than marijuana," he said. "We are dealing with a drug that is largely underground, and it is deteriorating the lives of a lot of people."
K2 or Spice was manufactured and imported from factories overseas. It was made with various herbs and sprayed with chemical compounds.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, at least 20 states, all military branches and many European countries have outlawed the drug containing the illegal chemical compounds. The drug is illegal under federal law, and 26 synthetic chemicals found in K2, Spice, bath salts and pope are classified as Schedule 1 controlled substances.
Jay said that when someone is addicted to pope, they don't care what chemicals are in it, as long as it gives them the high they want.
"There are a lot of folks losing everything they had, myself included, and try to go get help at Mission Outreach, but turn back around because they don't want to quit pope," Jay said.
Mission Outreach Executive Director Jamie Collins said the Paragould organization started drug testing for the substance about two months ago.
"Using this drug is like playing Russian roulette — you know there is a bullet in one of the six chambers, you just don't know which one will go off," she said.
Collins said she was watching people's mental capacities dwindle.
"Many people said, 'Don't bother, I'm leaving, and I'll flunk the test.' We've had to turn some away, and many folks just left," she said. "This drug is becoming the highest epidemic I've seen since meth."
Collins said that because people are constantly changing the chemicals in pope, they have to alter the drug tests accordingly.
Jay said the amount of money he wasted could pay for college for four years.
"Wouldn't doubt I spent $20,000 in two years, and that's not including things I've lost along the way," he said. "I believe a friend of mine died from a heart attack because she was detoxing off the stuff. Coming down off it is when you feel like you can die. You have nightmares, sweats, confusion, anxiety, hallucinations real bad for about three days."
He said there is no easy way to become sober, and the support of family and friends is the key to maintaining sobriety.
"You just have to quit cold turkey; there's no weaning yourself off of the stuff, and you have to disassociate with anyone still doing it," Jay said. "I'm 41, and never in my life have I been this down. I've never been this without; I've never been this alone. And it's all because of pope. Nowhere to go from here but up."
He is now more than a month sober with the help of a friend and his family, he said. He made plans to move out of state, where he will pursue a degree in automotive mechanics, and he is working on mending relationships.
"I have no more cravings; in fact, it disgusts me now just to smell it," Jay said. "I'm clear-headed and motivated to become the person I know myself to be."
He said he hopes his story would prevent others from trying the drug.
"I try to convince people every day to quit, and they aren't willing, and they're not gonna be willing any time soon," he said.
"You have to open your own eyes and realize what you are doing to yourself. Nobody can do it for you. I was fortunate to have a friend to kind of show me the way out. I'm just trying to be that friend to someone else and help them out of the darkness."
Information from: The Jonesboro Sun, http://www.jonesborosun.com
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