Synthetic marijuana on the rise: looks like pot, but 'far worse'

Synthetic marijuana is marketed as a cheap way to get a legal marijuana-like high. But health experts say it is 'way more' than marijuana and is 'very dangerous.'

Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board/AP/File
This photo taken last year shows a trucking distribution warehouse in Loxley, Ala., where state police made their largest seizure since Alabama banned synthetic marijuana last month.

Antidrug activists are concerned by the rising use of manmade drugs known as synthetic marijuana, which purport to be a legal way to a herbal high but are actually dangerous chemical concoctions that are banned in many states. 

The drugs, often sold in gas station and convenience stories under names like “K-2” and “Spice,” are known to cause bouts of paranoia and agitation, as well as psychosis. Some teens have coined the term “couch lock” to describe one effect – an inability to move despite being conscious. 

“This is nasty, evil, and very scary stuff,” says Nancy Knott, a drug counselor with Scripps Alcohol and Treatment Center in La Jolla, Calif. She relates a recent episode in which one teen considered himself to be Christ Jesus and could not be dissuaded.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that 1 in 9 high school seniors has tried the drugs. Calls to poison centers about the drugs rose from 2,900 in 2010 to 7,000 in 2011 and hit 1,200 in the first two months of 2012. 

Makers produce chemicals synthetically and then spray them onto dry herbs and plants, hoping to mimic the appearance of marijuana. The chemicals are three to five times more potent than the THC found in marijuana, “leading to symptoms including loss of consciousness, paranoia, and occasionally, psychotic episodes,” says Tod Burke, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia.

As of March 2011, 20 states had imposed bans and additional legislation is pending in 37 states, Professor Burke says.

Synthetic marijuana makers have tried to stay ahead of law enforcement by constantly altering their products chemically, replacing banned substances with new ones that have similar properties. This has lured workers searching for ways to get high but also pass drug tests, as well as teens seeking the latest “new high.” 

“It’s easy for entrepreneurs in US labs or overseas to manipulate the molecular structure and come back with another product promising the same kinds of highs,” says Grant Smith of Drug Policy Alliance

Counselor Ms. Knott says that a generation of parents who smoked pot in the 1960s and ’70s are partly responsible for rising use. They are allowing their kids to smoke marijuana “because we did” – but aren’t aware of the highly detrimental effects of the new synthetics.

“They see this stuff around and think it’s just marijuana,” says Knott. “So their kids are using it, and their kids’ friends – and then they find out after it’s too late that it was way more than marijuana.”

Kids are emboldened by this permissiveness, she adds: “The kids figure their parents were experimenters back in the day, and so why shouldn’t we be?”

They are also looking for ways to manage rising stress levels, says Elizabeth Dowdell, associate professor in the college of nursing at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “In today's world many teens and young adults have higher stress and anxiety levels than those of previous generations,” she says. “They are looking for something that is cheap and easy to get to give a high that numbs them to the stress and/or anxiety of their world.”

Marijuana advocates are quick to say marijuana is safer.

“The sad thing is that many people use these substances because they are afraid of the criminal penalties for marijuana,” says Morgan Fox, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. “If we would simply allow adults to use marijuana in a regulated, controlled framework, the market for these potentially dangerous synthetic substances would vanish overnight and there would be no one left to sell them to teens.”

For now, the answer to synthetic marijuana is “education, education, education of teens, teachers, nurses, doctors, parents,” says Ms. Dowdell, via e-mail. 

Others agree.

“Kids need to learn that these are very dangerous,“ says Christina Hantsch, head of toxicolcogy at the Loyola University Medical Center. “They tell me they would never try cocaine or heroin because they are too dangerous, and yet they are willing to try these, which can be far worse.”

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