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Synthetic Marijuana Overdoses Soar in Syracuse; Police Trying to Find Source of "Bad Batch"

Syracuse Police are investigating what’s behind a rise in “spike” overdoses this week.  Synthetic marijuana overdose cases across the city have increased from one or two per day, to upwards of 20, with more likely going unreported.  

Sergeant Rick Helterline says this may be due to what he calls a “bad batch.”

“This stuff is just a mixture of chemicals.  The people who are buying have no idea what's in there.  It's not regulated in any way, it's not monitored.  What we found recently is something that's in whatever they're using is causing more severe reactions than usual.” 

Reported overdoses are affecting a wide age range, from people in their teens into their 60’s.  Officers are monitoring interactions this week in an attempt to track down the source of the batch.  Helterline says the unpredictability of the drug is making it especially challenging to track.   

"We haven't been able to track the specific batch or specific brand that is causing this.  The way they package it, it could be the same stuff in 20 different packgages.  Everyone that uses it reacts differently.  Some people just don't feel well.  Others start acting like they're out of control.”           

Syracuse has seen surges in spike overdoses in 2012 and 2015.  While there have not yet been any reported fatalities linked to the drug in New York State, it has proven fatal in cases across the country in recent years. Helterline says that unlike heroin overdoses, there is no simple treatment for spike overdoses.

“Narcan, which can reverse the effects of opioids, I don't believe that's effective on [synthetic drugs].  The person just has to come through whatever they're going through to recover.  I'm sure they give them medications to calm them down, but there's no quick fix as we’ve found with heroin.”           

City Police are asking anyone with information regarding the buying or selling of spike to alert them by calling (315) 442-5222 or through their anonymous SPD Tips app.


News of the overdoses prompted Congressmember John Katko to urge the Senate to take up bi-partisan legislation already passed by the House to address the synthetic drug crisis.  In a release, he says his bill would modernize the Controlled Substances Act and provide a mechanism that can temporarily or permanently add synthetic analogues to Schedule A. 

"It's clear that we need immediate action to end the synthetic drug crisis plaguing our community," Katko said.

He says currently, manufacturers can quickly and slightly change the chemcial composition of the compound, staying one step ahead of law enforcement.

A bi-partisan group of lawmakers in the Senate has introduced Katko's bill, but no action has been taken.  Sen. Chuck Schumer has repeatedly made a similar call to allow the changing chemical compounds of synthetic drugs to be quickly added to Schedule A.

John Smith has been waking up WAER listeners for a long time as our Local Co-Host of Morning Edition with timely news and information, working alongside student Sportscasters from the Newhouse School.
Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at