3 Kings Holiday Cake Mixed With Synthetic Drugs Makes Dozens Of Hallucinations: The Two-Way: NPR

Synthetic drugs, collected in evidence bags, sit on a white counter.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images


hide caption

toggle caption

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images


Synthetic drugs, collected in evidence bags, sit on a white counter.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Updated at 3:18 p.m. Jan. 13.

A Rosca de Reyes is a traditional holiday bread.

Courtesy of the artist.


hide caption

toggle caption

Courtesy of the artist.

Last week, Southern California Public Radio reported that dozens of people had fallen ill from a Rosca de Reyes, a traditional Three Kings bread in various Hispanic communities. Sick customers at Cholula’s Bakery in Santa Ana, Calif., and its retail outlets have complained of heart palpitations and hallucinations.

According to Los Angeles Times and other reports, up to 40 people may have been affected.

Preliminary laboratory results indicate the presence of a designer drug in bread, Time reports. A criminal investigation will be launched by the Santa Ana Police Department, and more lab results are expected within the next two weeks.

Around the same time as the incident, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, introduced legislation that targets producers and importers of synthetic drugs. The bill is called the Protecting Our Children from Dangerous Synthetic Drugs Act.

Synthetic drugs mimic controlled substances like cocaine and marijuana. There are hundreds of variations. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, “spices” (synthetic marijuana), “K2” and “bath salts” are among the most commonly used. The government also lists MDMA (often referred to as “molly”) as “a synthetic psychoactive drug that bears similarities to both the stimulant amphetamine and the hallucinogenic mescaline.”

NPR reported on the evolving problem of synthetic drugs present for the Drug Enforcement Administration. In 2012, Congress banned several synthetic drugs with the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act. In a statement, Portman said the problem persists: “Dangerous synthetic drugs are plaguing Ohio communities.”

The American Association of Poison Control Centers says there were 3,677 reported cases of synthetic drug exposure in 2014. Still, 2011 was a record year, with nearly 7,000 reported cases.

But David Kroll, who covers drugs and science for Forbes magazine, states that synthetic drug use continues to be a problem: “From a consumer perspective, it appears that law enforcement authorities have been successful in reducing sales of these so-called legal highs in convenience stores and on the Internet. But there’s still enough of an underground market.”

Last year, there were several high-profile DEA raids on synthetic drug dealers. NPR’s Bill Chappell reported that “DEA investigators say hundreds of millions of dollars in drug profits are funneled to countries like Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.” In December, CBS reported on Operation Synthetic Web, an eight-month effort that ended in December with a massive drug bust in Miami. Officers said they seized approximately $360,000 worth of synthetic drugs.

Kroll says that although media attention has shifted away from synthetic drug use, he sees growing attention to this problem in the medical community: “There have been increasing reports in the medical literature about side effects, adverse reactions to these chemicals, both in the brain as well as in the lungs; many of these chemicals or their by-products can actually damage lung tissue.”

The Spice Addiction Support online forum paints a pretty grim picture of what prolonged use of synthetic marijuana looks like, with a particularly dismal withdrawal process for those trying to quit. A user by the name of Tyler12345 writes, It’s horrible. I didn’t like it at first, I tripped so much I was scared. But I’m a dumb, stupid young teenager…I got used to it. Then I started throwing up, sweating, getting withdrawals. Smoke like 4 to 5 grams per day. Today I quit. I promised my mom and my grandmother friends that I wouldn’t do it again. Please don’t try k2 k3 or anything. It’s like heroin! It takes your life slowly.”

Synthetic drugs are also associated with very young users. According to the 2012 Monitoring the Future survey of drug use trends among young people, 1 in 9 12th graders in the United States reported having used synthetic cannabinoids in the past year. Kroll explains why, using Colorado as an example. He says, “[Legal] recreational marijuana is very expensive compared to street marijuana or those synthetics that you can buy from friends and online.”

Alvin J. Chase