When you think about drugs that ultimately lead people to the E.R., the first things that come to mind might be heroin, cocaine or prescription drugs. However, there is another dangerous set of substances that are sending thousands to hospitals across the country: synthetic drugs.

As an emergency physician, I have treated high school students who came in unresponsive and needed breathing tubes to stay alive. I have seen teens hallucinating and suffering seizures. I have attended to adults who sustained long-term brain, heart and kidney damage because of these harmful drugs.


These are substances that can cause lifelong health problems and lead to death, yet they are widely available, often sold in corner stores or gas stations. Many people, including retailers, parents and teens, don't know how dangerous they are. Popularly known as K2, "spice" or "bath salts," these substances are marketed as "safe" alternatives to illicit drugs. Actually, they are just as dangerous because they contain untested chemical compounds that have devastating consequences for users. Many are misleadingly marketed as room fresheners, herbal incense or potpourri, but they are not household products at all; they are man-made chemicals sprayed on dried plants. Scientists have called these substances Russian Roulette; you never know what you will get, and it will likely harm or kill you.

Many forms of synthetic drugs are illegal in the state of Maryland. However, drug manufacturers have come up with clever ways of getting around the laws by making small changes to the chemical compounds. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has tracked over 300 different active ingredients in less than a decade, making enforcement extremely challenging.

All the while, manufacturers target unsuspecting customers, including our teens. Nationally, one in nine 12th graders reported using synthetic drugs in the past year. Of the illicit substances used by high-school seniors, they rank second only to marijuana.

In Baltimore, our emergency rooms are seeing a marked increase in patients using these substances. As a result, the Health Department is launching a concerted campaign against synthetic drugs. We have convened leading doctors and public health officials to sign the Baltimore Statement About the Danger of Synthetic Drugs. We are working with our doctors and nurses to educate patients and encourage testing for these harmful compounds.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake recently announced a proactive new bill that will stiffen penalties for local businesses selling these drugs. This bill allows the Health Department to remove synthetic drugs from stores at the time they are found so that we can stop the sales of this dangerous product. It also decreases the burden of proof necessary by imposing civil in addition to criminal penalties for sellers.

We know that the vast majority of our city's business owners already want to do the right thing and will work with us to stop this dangerous product. That's why we sent letters to nearly 1,300 corner stores, grocery stores, gas stations and other businesses, asking owners to sign a pledge not to sell these products and urging them to post "Not a Drug Dealer" signs in their windows. Our letters also include a guide to help businesses identify synthetic drugs so that they can help to be on the lookout with us.

Finally, we have started a public health education campaign: Don't Roll the Dice With Spice. We need community help to spread the message. Parents: Talk to your children about synthetic drugs; they are no safer than any illicit drug and must be avoided. Teachers: Please help to educate your students. Residents: If you see a business that is selling these drugs, please call 311.

If you know someone who has used synthetic drugs, help is available. Please call our 24/7 Crisis, Information & Referral Line for any substance-use related or mental health condition at 410-433-5175. Treatment is available and recovery is possible.

Baltimore's communities cannot afford to play a game of chance with synthetic drugs. By standing united against synthetic drugs, we can make Baltimore a national leader in the fight against these deadly substances.

Dr. Leana Wen is the Baltimore City Health Commissioner. Twitter: @bmore_healthy and @DrLeanaWen.