Jimson weed can kill, but kids are eating it Essex student nearly loses life in overdose

January 03, 1993|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Staff Writer

A new fad in drug abuse among Baltimore County teen-agers has nearly claimed one 16-year-old youth's life and raised concern among county police and drug-prevention counselors.

"The kids call it 'pods.' It grows wild," Michael Gimbel, director of the county's Office of Substance Abuse, said of jimson weed. "It grows all over the place. Kids eat the seeds and hallucinate. But it's poison."

According to Mr. Gimbel, use of jimson weed is most severe in BTC Essex and Middle River, where youngsters are picking the plant, breaking open its thorny fruit, and eating the seeds. At least 12 students are in drug counseling after having eaten the wild weed, he said.

Tomorrow, when county schools are to resume class after thholiday break, Mr. Gimbel plans to begin an information campaign to alert students, teachers and parents to the dangers of jimson weed. The plant contains a toxic drug that produces intense hallucinations.

The ancients called the weed datura, or thorn apple. It was also called stinkweed. In America, it became known as Jamestown weed. Settlers ate the weed and hallucinated; some died.

Two weeks ago, a 16-year-old high school student from Essex put the weed's bitter-tasting seeds into spaghetti sauce and overdosed. The youth, a student at Eastern Vocational Technical High School, was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital. He suffered heart attacks and renal failure, said Mr. Gimbel.

The student, who did not want to be interviewed, is attending a private, 28-day drug-counseling program. His principal said he has not been back to school since the overdose. "It's a miracle this kid didn't die," Mr. Gimbel said. "These kids are getting into it as a fad. . . . When the word gets around that you can get high from this, kids are picking it up."

Mr. Gimbel said the 16-year-old youth put the seeds into the spaghetti sauce to make them more palatable. That's probably what made him eat too many, he said.

The episode brought pod-eating to the attention of county police. After talking with the guidance counselor at Kenwood High, Cpl. Neal White went with a student and picked some jimson weed.

"I have worked narcotics for eight years and I had never heard of it," Corporal White said. "Now that I know what it is, I see it all the time."

He was not alone. His boss, Lt. Rob Dewberry, heads the county's narcotics squad and hadn't heard of jimson weed. Frank Meyer, chief of the narcotics prosecution section of the state's attorney's office, also hadn't heard of the weed.

One reason is that, unlike cocaine or marijuana, jimson weed is not illegal. The only penalty for eating its seeds is sickness, possibly death.

Dr. John E. Smialek, the state medical examiner, said his office has seen no cases of jimson weed-induced death in Maryland during his tenure. But, he warned, the plant can cause death.

Once the drug enters the blood stream, it produces symptoms such as dry mouth, flushed face, increased body temperature, weakness, dizziness and seizures, said Dr. Smialek. "They can progress to the point where you collapse," he said. "And you can die."

Dr. James Tolliver, a pharmacologist with the U.S. Drug EnforcementAgency, said his office occasionally hears of teen-agers eating jimson weed. "It's a fad that comes in and out every couple of years," he said.

Jimson weed is found all over the world, and has been used as a folk medicine. According to one textbook, some ancient cultures used it during initiation rites to purge girls and boys of their memories of childhood.

Dr. Robert Kokoski, who operates Friends Medical Laboratory Inc., said belladonna alkaloids are the active chemicals in jimson weed. These chemicals are used in some modern prescription )) medicines: The difference is that the chemicals can be carefully controlled in prescription drugs, but can vary greatly in wild-growing plants, even from seed to seed, he said.

Corporal White said he hopes publicizing the problem won't induce other youngsters to experiment with the dangerous plant.

"This stuff can kill you," he said.

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