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Synthetic Marijuana Blamed For Increasing Deaths In Florida Prisons

An inmate lays on the ground after smoking synthetic marijuana.
Florida Department of Corrections
An inmate lays on the ground after smoking synthetic marijuana.

Florida prisons are seeing an increasing number of inmate deaths that authorities blame on a synthetic marijuana substance known as K2, or spice.

The increase in overdoses has prompted state officials to launch an educational campaign intended to show inmates the dangers of using the substance. The campaign was first reported by WLRN's news partner the Miami Herald.

The number of “accidental deaths” that have taken place in Florida prisons spiked from 12 in 2016 to 62 in 2017, according to the state. Internal audits cited by the Herald show that synthetic marijuana has been identified as the top killer.

An educational video that is meant for inmates shows grainy cell phone footage of an inmate having spasms on the floor, next to a puddle of what looks like vomit. The video features testimonials of inmates who have smoked the drug in the past and survived. One inmate describes how he had a stroke after smoking the substance.

“Don’t smoke it. Please don’t. Look at me. You know, I’ve been there, done it. And I regret it, every minute of it,” says an inmate.

Dr. Gregory Lydell, a doctor interviewed in the video, explains that smoking K2 increases pressure on the brain. “What ends up happening is that we have to relieve that pressure,” says Lydell. “In several cases we had to have that patient intubated, sent to neurosurgery immediately once they arrive to an outside hospital, and actually have portions of their skull removed and actually portions of their brain removed.”

The epidemic is happening at a time when the state has slashed funding for substance abuse programs for inmates, after the Florida legislature didn't fully fund the prison system.

In addition to producing the educational video for inmates, the Department of Corrections says it has added nine new K9 dogs to intercept contraband coming into the prisons, as well as producing a separate video for families showing the damage that contraband synthetic marijuana can cause.

“The Department is aggressively working to stop ALL entry points through increased searches, increased technology at entry points, intelligence practices and drug interdiction K9s,” wrote Department spokesperson Michelle Glady in an email to WLRN.

The drug often contains traces of cockroach spray, rat poison, nail polish remover and ammonia, according to the Department of Corrections. Despite the street name, the drug has little in common with marijuana. It is mixed by at-home chemists without any kind of standard formula.

The problem is not limited to prisons. In other parts of the country, synthetic marijuana has become a major public health crisis. Just last week authorities in New Haven, Connecticut logged more than 100 overdoses over a two-day stretch.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.