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WESTMINSTER, Md. - Synthetic pot or "Spice" as it's called is far more dangerous than the pot many parents are familiar with from the 1960's. Two local families are learning tough lessons about how tragic its impact can be on their lives.
Erik Liem's family knows him as a shy, quiet young man whose smile is reserved for the small group of people who know him best. But to the world, the 23-year-old is known as the stone-faced suspect from a mug shot taken the night Carroll County authorities say he stabbed his mother.
Liem's aunt Sharon Purkey was shocked when she heard the news. She says, "I couldn't believe it when they said Erik did it. I'm like ‘Erik?' This is a timid little boy, young man, excuse me. How could he do such a thing?"
But Purkey believes she knows why. She says he had been struggling with drugs and admitted to his family that in the hours before the stabbing he had been smoking Spice, a form of synthetic pot that's sold legally in Maryland. Purkey says, "He obviously had done it before and didn't have that type of episode. This time he did and he could have killed his mother."
Purkey makes no apologies for what Erik did to her sister. She's angry and upset, but feels the episode is out of her nephew's character. She believes the spice changed him, saying, "It makes him into a person he's not."
Harford County mother of five Robin Smith has also seen the power spice can have on someone's personality. She tells ABC2, "These kinds of drugs can just throw you overboard."
In the last two years, Smith says her teenaged son, Kyle, went from star athlete to someone she says can barely function on his own. The change started after she says he used spice, "Children think they're invincible and they make bad choices. Everyone does at a time in their life. And he's paying a high price for it."
Robin's family is all paying. They've been through hell, watching as 17-year-old Kyle dealt with unbearable hallucinations and attempted suicide. He's been admitted to psychiatric wards and tried rehabilitation centers, but with little results. He's a shell of the boy he used to be.
Robin and her family have suffered through heartbreaking months, searching for someone to help treat the problems she believes Spice brought out Kyle, "When state officials and doctors can't help you, it gets extremely scary."
Dr. Fermin Barrueto, the chairman of the Emergency Department at Upper Chesapeake in Bel Air admits that when it comes to treating people who've taken spice, "Resources are minimal and research is not tremendous."
Barrueto says he regularly sees patients inside the ER who've taken the synthetic marijuana, many of them teenagers. He tells ABC2, "Their response when I ask them ‘Why did you do it?' Because it's legal."
The legality issues surrounding synthetic marijuana may be the reason it doesn't get as much attention. Five chemical compounds used in Spice have been banned by the DEA. But Barrueto and other experts believe it's still being sold with those ingredients, with manufacturers making a minor label change to continue with their operation.
Maryland lawmakers sought to ban those five compounds, as well as additional ones often found in Spice. But House Bill 76, which addressed the issue, failed to move out of committee in the latest session.
The failure in the legislature is even more alarm to Barrueto considering new studies raise big alarms about the potential for long lasting effects from usage of synthetic pot, including psychosis. Barrueto says, "Some of these people first present to the emergency room and maybe the psychosis goes away. But some of these adolescents are having the first psychotic breaks at this young age. This drug is bringing this out."
And for some, like Robin Smith's son, Kyle, it's not going away. Their story is motivation that keeps Barrueto looking for treatment solutions, fighting for answers and lobbying for that state ban. He knows the future for the kids who take this drug is grim, "The stories will get worse. They'll get more tragic and it's only a matter of time."
Sharon Purkey and Robin Smith have already experienced that kind of tragedy. They're sharing their stories to make sure your family doesn't have to. Smith says, "No other parents should ever, ever, ever have to face this."
Purkey tears up as she thinks of her sister, recovering with stab wounds, and her nephew, sitting in a jail cell at the Carroll County Detention Center, charged with assault. Their fates, the cost that comes from using a drug that wasn't on her radar until the stabbing, "It ruins lives and we really need to do something about it."
"It hurts, it hurts,” Michael Marion said. “Sometimes I just want to close my eyes when I go by. That way maybe it's not there, but it's there and every day we go by it, my boys see it every day, their bus goes by it every day."
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