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Use of Toxic Plant Spreading Among Teenagers

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Teenagers nationwide are turning to a common plant for a legal but potentially fatal high, and that has city, school, and public-health officials alarmed.

The city council in Maitland, Fla., voted unanimously late last month to ban the planting of angel's trumpet, a poisonous tropical plant that is closely related to jimsonweed or thorn apple. The plant grows wild nationwide and is favored by gardeners as an ornamental.

Reports of teenagers being poisoned by eating angel's trumpet or drinking tea made from the plant have multiplied dramatically in recent months in central and southwest Florida.

Maitland, a suburb of Orlando, apparently is the first town in Florida to ban the plant.

Poisonings from angel's trumpet and jimsonweed also have cropped up in recent months in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Texas.

Late last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report on such poisonings in three states, including the deaths last year of two teenagers in Texas.

Free, Legal, Deadly

Jimsonweed and angel's trumpet have large trumpet-shaped flowers that can range from white to pink to violet. The plants can grow to more than 6 feet tall and produce large, spiny, seed-filled fruits.

Adolescents in search of a hallucinogenic high apparently turn to the toxic plant--also known as "the poor man's peyote"--because it is readily available and legal.

"Youngsters who are abusing it with the intent of getting high don't realize it's impossible to get high without being poisoned," said Rose Ann Soloway, a clinical toxicologist and the administrator of the American Association of Poison Control Centers in Washington.

All parts of the plant are poisonous, and ingesting it can cause a very high heart rate; flushed, hot, dry skin; hallucinations; seizures; coma; and death, experts said.

Taking Action

In Orange County, Fla., the sheriff's office is pursuing two ways to get angel's trumpet listed as a controlled substance state~wide. Not only have officials there petitioned the state attorney general's office, but they also have asked the state legislature to consider a bill that would do the same, said Sgt. Steven Hougland of the office's narcotics unit.

In 1993, eight cases of poisoning from angel's trumpet were reported to the Florida Poison Information and Toxicology Resource Center in Tampa. By 1994, that number had increased to more than 85 such cases, with teenagers making up the majority of victims. There have been no reported deaths in Florida.

"This was spreading like wildfire, by word of mouth through the schools," Sergeant Hougland said. "The kids knew it was not illegal, and they would go out and find the plant and take it."

He said that during classroom drug-awareness visits this school year, for the first time, he fielded repeated questions from middle school students about whether the plant was legal.

To try to combat the upswing in use, the Tampa poison center last October issued a public-health alert to every hospital emergency department in central and southwest Florida and launched a public-education campaign about the plant's dangers.

Spreading Nationwide

In Connecticut, officials took action last fall when at least a dozen youths were hospitalized after eating jimsonweed seeds, according to news reports.

The mayor of Milford, Conn., ordered public-works crews to remove the plant, letters about its dangers were sent home to parents, and school principals made announcements about it to students.

Last month, the lead article in the C.D.C.'s Jan. 27 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report was about jimsonweed poisonings.

The report said two teenage boys in El Paso died last June after drinking tea brewed from the roots of the jimsonweed plant and alcoholic beverages, and in October, six California youths became ill from jimsonweed tea.

Last October and November, 14 cases of the poisoning turned up in Long Island, N.Y., among people ages 14 to 21. Several had eaten jimsonweed seeds.

The late summer and early fall are peak times for reports of poisonings because that is when the plant flowers, Ms. Soloway said.

But reports of poisonings have continued this month in Florida, one official said. And last month in Alton and Bethalto, Ill., near St. Louis, several teenagers became ill after reportedly eating jimsonweed seeds that were passed around at parties.

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