Synthetic marijuana epidemic hits Victoria

Sara  Sneath By Sara Sneath

Jan. 7, 2017 at 10:33 p.m.
Updated Jan. 10, 2017 at 12:10 a.m.

Vanessa Castillo, 33, talks about the recent death of her brother, Raymond Castillo. Vanessa says her brother died from using synthetic marijuana.  In late November, Victoria EMS received 30 calls related to synthetic marijuana in a 72-hour period.

Vanessa Castillo, 33, talks about the recent death of her brother, Raymond Castillo. Vanessa says her brother died from using synthetic marijuana. In late November, Victoria EMS received 30 calls related to synthetic marijuana in a 72-hour period.   Ana Ramirez for The Victoria Advocate

Watching a man collapse after using synthetic marijuana sent her into a frenzy.

Vanessa Castillo stormed off toward the parking lot of Christ's Kitchen, where she sank onto a milk crate and pushed her fingers into the black roots of her hair. Hot, salty tears poured from her dark brown eyes.

It wasn't the first time she'd seen someone collapse from the drug. The drug's telltale symptoms - a zombie-like stagger and fixated eyes - had been a part of her reality since she'd tried it herself at a halfway house in town. A friend had warned her that the potent narcotic was dangerous, a chemical cocktail that constantly changes and is therefore unpredictable in the havoc it can wreak on the body.

But she didn't listen. And now, it was too late.

About 1 a.m. Dec. 29, her brother, Raymond Castillo, was found facedown in a lawn on the 2500 block of Lone Tree Road. A Victoria police officer attempted to resuscitate the 37-year-old before paramedics took him to Citizens Medical Center, where he died.

Though autopsy results are still pending, Castillo is convinced her brother died of synthetic marijuana.

"I don't want that fake s--- around here no more," she said. "I'll be damned if I allow anyone else to die from this s---."

During the month of December, paramedics responded to 42 calls for adverse reactions to the drug. The Victoria Police Department estimated it responded to about 80 incidents involving the drug between Thanksgiving and mid-December. The incidents peaked during a 24-hour period in which paramedics responded to between 15 and 20 calls related to the narcotic.

The drug did not discriminate.

The medical calls spanned the city. Some who experienced medical emergencies were in their teens; others were in their 50s. Some were homeless; others were employed at jobs that require a urinalysis.

A particularly alarming incident involved five junior high kids who collapsed in the middle of a roadway on their way home from school. Two of the kids had seizures.

The uptick alarmed the Victoria medical community, which sent out a health advisory warning residents of the dangerous effects of the drug.

One of the symptoms of synthetic marijuana use is combativeness.

Paramedics began carrying an antipsychotic medication in their trucks in September because of a nationwide uptick in synthetic narcotic use, said Tracy Fox, the Victoria Fire Department's assistant fire chief.

"It calms them down. It keeps them from being combative. So, we've really used that quite a bit," Fox said of the antipsychotic. "It's helped our crews out quite a bit to be able to manage these cases."

Paramedics also have had to use an increasing amount of anti-seizure medications. Before the past couple of months, when city paramedics responded to synthetic marijuana calls, they typically found high-school-aged users who were experiencing elevated heart rates, elevated temperatures and paranoia, Fox said.

But the more serious side effects of the drug have become the new normal. Though the peak call period hit between late November and early December, paramedics are now responding to calls almost every day, Fox said.

Law enforcement has had a difficult time pinpointing where the drug is coming from, said Lt. Eline Moya, the Victoria Police Department's spokeswoman.

At one point, the drug was sold in convenience stores and smoke shops as incense. A sweep throughout the city in 2012, in addition to more comprehensive state legislation passed in 2015, cast the drug out from under store roofs. But it continues to be sold on the streets.

Still, many people see the brightly colored foil packets and believe the contents to be innocuous. A large part of the department's role to combat the epidemic has been public education.

"People will talk about it or reference that it's legal and it's safe. And it's not," Moya said. "Just because it's packaged like you would buy from a manufacturer ... you can have people who make it in their backyard."

The Victoria County Sheriff's Office has caught drivers transporting the drug on highways, said Larry Leon, an intelligence analyst with the Victoria County Sheriff's Office Special Operations.

Though the substance was at one time being made in China, he believes it's now also being made domestically in larger metro areas.

Drugs, like any industry, are about economics. And, when a synthetic marijuana dealer runs out of a given chemical ingredient, he or she may use another in its place, adding to the narcotic's harmful effect.

The chemicals used in synthetic marijuana are intended to target the same area of the brain as THC, the active ingredient in natural marijuana. But that is where the similarities between the two drugs end.

Synthetic weed is packaged to look like natural marijuana. Chemicals are sprayed on dry leaves that can be smoked from a joint, bowl or bong, Leon said. The drug is often sold in packages that appear harmless.

"If you didn't know better, you would have thought this was a baseball card with bubble gum inside," Leon said, holding a package of synthetic weed confiscated during a raid.

The drug is sold for about $20 per gram, the same mass as a pack of Sweet'N Low. That's more expensive than natural marijuana. But users buy at that price because synthetic marijuana is more potent.

The constant changing of chemicals used to make the drug, which initially made it difficult to ban, is also what makes it particularly dangerous, said Bryan Simons, Victoria County Sheriff's Office media relations deputy.

"Just because you've done this safely five or six times doesn't mean that on the seventh time you're not going to have a medical event," he said. "But that also doesn't mean it won't happen the first time you try it."

Raymond Castillo was a good man, his sister said. He worked at Texas Seafood and minded his own business. He did drugs for the same reason many do.

"You know, sometimes we need a little. And it's not always the right thing to do," his sister said. "Sometimes we don't have nothing. Sometimes those drugs are what make us able to take the cold out here."

She hung a sign up in Christ's Kitchen to warn people about what happened to her brother.

But days later, she tore it down. Castillo said she was warned that her advocacy against the drug would put a target on her back.

She continues to see people smoking the drug despite her urging them against it.

A halo of stray hairs framed her face as she said she hasn't used fake weed since her brother died.

Her slumped posture showed defeat - the pain in her eyes palpable, the drug that once served as her painkiller now a constant reminder of what she lost.



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