A new, “legal” way to get high is becoming a growing problem for authorities and the people who abuse various products containing synthetic marijuana.
Products containing synthetic marijuana mimic the effects of traditional marijuana. The products are largely unregulated and are generally available in local tobacco shops, drug officials said.
The suspected drugs are packaged as potpourri or incense, under names such as "K2," "Black Mamba" and more. They are sold in small quantities such as 1, 3 or 4 grams.
Most of the packaging on these products says “lab certified” or “Not for human consumption.” But experts say the sellers and the customers know smoking it can get you high.
"This incense is hundreds of times more expensive than the other incense, so it's kind of sold with kind of a wink and a nod," said Special Agent Will Taylor, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Chicago Field Division.
"These store owners and people don't care what happens," Taylor said. "For them it's all about making money."
For some people, the effects of smoking the synthetic weed will be much like smoking regular weed—some paranoia, some giddiness and bloodshot eyes. For others, products containing the synthetic substance can lead to severe panic attacks, high blood pressure, nausea and an increased heart rate.
The drug, and its dangers, were widely publicized earlier this month when Karen Dobner said she suspected synthetic marijuana was a factor in her son's June 14 death when he crashed his car in Batavia Township.
Some of these attempts to get high end with a call for help. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 2,874 calls related to synthetic marijuana nationwide in 2010. The centers this year already had 2,052 calls as of May 12.
Illinois centers this year have already received double the number of synthetic marijuana calls than last year.
“This stuff is very prevalent and it’s still out there and causing problems,” said Dr. Anthony Scalzo, medical director of the Missouri Regional Poison Center. “I can’t tell you the number of parents who have contacted me … I have talked to so many parents whose kids are so messed up from this stuff.”
Making A Fake
Creating synthetic marijuana, or fake weed as it's sometimes called, requires someone with a chemist's background and leaves that can substitute for the real thing.
The manufacturers create substances that have a similar chemical makeup to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Multiple media outlets, including Bloomberg Business Week and NPR affiliate WFAE, report that synthetic drug makers likely used the published work of John W. Huffman to create their products.
Huffman is a retired professor from Clemson University who studied how to make compounds that acted like marijuana. Several compounds are named with Huffman's initials, JWH.
The chemists create a form of JWH or similar compounds to spray onto the leaves of spices one could normally find at stores such as Pier 1 Imports, Scalzo said.
Special Agent Taylor said synthetic marijuana is mostly produced overseas, in countries such as China or India. Then it's ready to order or purchase online, or in tobacco shops, convenience stores and gas stations. Declaring substances such as these illegal requires an exhaustive process. To read more about the steps, click here.
Taylor said the drugs were a problem in Europe about three years ago. The problem has slowly crept into the U.S.
"We don’t really know how widespread it is. Don’t know much about it, other than we’ve heard calls to poison control centers have increased dramatically," Taylor said.
More Than A High?
Scalzo said many of the effects of synthetic cannabinoids are still mysterious.
“We don’t know all of the symptoms,” he said. “I can explain the heart rate. I can explain the agitation … I can understand what appears to be some of the hallucinations. I can’t explain the blood pressure.”
Scalzo said his office is now dealing with bad reactions to substances that were never intended to be drugs in the first place.
JWH-018, a now-banned compound found commonly in synthetic marijuana, was first designed to test a receptor in the brain.
Now, young people are ingesting a drug hundreds of times more potent than THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. And, those young people are experiencing “exaggerated effects” as well.
“They go to the same receptor in the brain that marijuana goes to, but they don’t do the same thing,” Scalzo said. “These receptors are not like an isolated country on an island, they all communicate with each other.”
The short-term results include a pounding heartbeat with a rate more than 170, and high blood pressure. Scalzo has also heard of users who experience extreme anxiety, some paranoia, and thoughts of suicide.
“This stuff is very prevalent and it’s still out there and causing problems,” he said. “I can’t tell you the number of parents who have contacted me … I have talked to so many parents whose kids are so messed up from this stuff.”
Among the heartbroken parents are Iowans missing David Mitchell Rozga, a teenager who shot himself last year about an hour after smoking K2.
“It’s like a Russian Roulette,” Scalzo said. “I know people smoke it and the person may have nothing but a positive experience and say this is great stuff, but then there are the people admitted to my emergency room.”
Scalzo said the uptick in poison center calls are “just the tip of the iceberg,” because those are only the bad reactions physicians hear about.
Some drug-test companies, namely NMS Labs, are now able to detect synthetic cannabinoids in urine samples. But a person taking the drugs will still pass most urine drug tests.
“Your average doctor of even a major medical center (does not have a test for it),” Scalzo said. “If they don’t tell you that they took it, I don’t know … it doesn’t cross with THC.”
Long-term effects of the drug are unknown, although Scalzo hears anecdotes from parents about children changing moods.
While the acute effects from synthetic marijuana can be treated with a relaxed atmosphere and sedatives, long-term treatment is more complex and is not universally agreed upon.
“Neurobiology cannot come up with a single rubric to explain all of the symptoms that we’re seeing with these things,” Scalzo said. “It makes me wonder if there are things in there we don’t even know. This stuff is worse than marijuana. This stuff is bad.”
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