Dangers of synthetic marijuana

The AAPCC warns that synthetic marijuana can trigger life-threatening health effects.

Back in seventh grade, this kid thought it would be cool to get high. He didn’t have any marijuana, so he used oregano and some other ingredients to create “fake pot.”

There was a weird smell and lots of smoke, but Mike and his experimenting buddies coughed it out and lived to tell the tale. Today’s “fake pot,” sold under a variety of names, including K2 and Spice, could leave experimenters with a truly lethal high.

Thousands of synthetic marijuana users have ended up in hospitals and nearly 8,000 people have called poison control centers in the past two years after they or someone they knew was exposed to the drug, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC).

The AAPCC warns that synthetic marijuana can trigger life-threatening health effects, including:

  • Severe agitation and anxiety
  • Racing heartbeat and soaring blood pressure
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Muscle spasms, seizures and tremors
  • Intense hallucinations and psychotic episodes
  • Suicidal thoughts and other harmful thoughts and/or actions

The danger lies in the toxic makeup of synthetic marijuana, explained George Rodgers, M.D., associate medical director of the Kentucky Regional Poison Control Center of Norton Children’s Hospital.

Basically, drug “designers” lace plant material, such as dried herbs, flowers and leaves, with synthetic cannabinoids. These “cannabimimetics” are mixtures of psychoactive chemicals similar to THC, or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the primary active ingredient in natural marijuana. Some batches are blueberry or bubble gum favored to lure young users.

“Like most ‘street drugs,’ you never know what you get with these products since they are totally unregulated and mostly illegal,” said Dr. Rodgers, who holds the Humana Foundation Chair in International Pediatrics at the University of Louisville.

“The toxic potential from these compounds is significantly greater than that from THC —  hallucinations, seizures, myocardial infarction and death all having been reported in numerous cases,” Dr. Rodgers said, adding that data suggests the drugs may be addictive and carry withdrawal reactions.

Harmful effects from synthetic marijuana began surfacing about five years ago, and lawmakers and municipalities have struggled since then to regulate the products. Also in the synthetic drug arena: “Bath salts,” or cathinones, which chemically copy-cat amphetamines and carry similar adverse effects as cocaine, LSD and methamphetamines.

One in nine high school seniors reported using synthetic marijuana in the last year, according to a 2012 survey of youth drug-use trends. The survey results, reported by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), found synthetic pot as the second most frequently used illegal drug among high school seniors, after marijuana.

Synthetic cannabinoids are often sold online or in legal retail outlets as “herbal incense” or “potpourri,” alongside synthetic cathinones, labeled as “bath salts” or “jewelry cleaner,” according to the ONDCP. The products are labeled “not for human consumption” to mask their intended purpose and avoid Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory oversight of the manufacturing process, the agency reports.

The federal government’s Drug Abuse Warning Network first reported on health effects from synthetic marijuana after looking at related emergency room visits in 2010. One-third of the some 11,000 people who sought emergency treatment after smoking synthetic marijuana were in the 12- to 17-year-old age group, according to the report.

In terms of which form of marijuana is more dangerous for users, Dr. Rodgers said synthetic marijuana is by far worse. Law enforcement agencies have reported a plethora of street names for synthetic marijuana, including Black Mamba, Crazy Monkey, Crazy Clown, Dead Man Walking, Funky Monkey, Sexy Monkey, SinX, Spice, TenX, Twilight and 3X. Of the 158 new synthetic substances identified in 2012, 51 were new synthetic cannabinoids, according to the ONDCP.

Poison control experts urge those who may have been exposed to synthetic marijuana to seek medical assistance or call the national poison control center hotline at (800) 222-1222.

The AAPCC points out that poison centers offer free, private, confidential medical advice 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Experts can assist callers in deciding whether someone can be treated at home or whether they must go to a hospital. The organization advises that you call 911 immediately if someone stops breathing, collapses or has a seizure.


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