- - Wednesday, May 6, 2015

As states tackle with issues of legalizing “all natural” medical marijuana, the dangers of synthetic marijuana continue to surface. This past month, there was again a dramatic spike in emergency room visits in several states. Marketed under the names Spice, Smacked, K2, and Black Mamba — to name a few — synthetic marijuana is not the “safe” alternative to plant-grown marijuana that it is made out to be.

In fact, more than 11,000 people visit the emergency room every year for complications related to synthetic marijuana (ab)use. And approximately 75 percent of those patients are adolescents and young adults ages 12-29. These are staggering statistics. Let’s take a look at what exactly synthetic marijuana is and what we can do about this dangerous problem that is disproportionately affecting our youth.

Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know: About Synthetic Marijuana

What exactly is synthetic marijuana? Dried vegetation that is coated or sprayed with chemicals mimicking the effects of marijuana — a high or euphoric state. The vegetation is typically any readily available or cheap leaf or plant material.
How does it work? In order to understand how legal and illegal drugs work, let’s take a crash course in pharmacology (the study of medications). Our body has a complicated signaling system where transmitters bind to receptors. Think of a key (transmitter) and a keyhole (receptor). When the correct key fits into the keyhole, it unlocks the door (or in this case elicits a response).  

Both plant-grown and synthetic marijuana bind to THC receptors in the brain that cause an elevated mood, relaxation, and altered perception. In other words, the “high” that the drug user is seeking.  

How is synthetic marijuana different than plant-grown marijuana? Synthetic marijuana is manufactured in a lab or factory. Additionally, it binds to THC receptors much more strongly than plant-grown marijuana, and as a result has a much more potent effect or “high.”  

How is it sold? Typically as incense, potpourri and room deodorizer.

How is it used? Mainly by smoking. However, liquid forms are available for use similar to e-cigarettes or as an herbal infusion for drinking.

Is there any quality control? No. There is no accurate dosing, no regulations, no testing for safety, and no money-back guarantee. Do not expect manufacturers to foot the hospital bill or pay out damages.

There is no way to know exactly what synthetic marijuana contains. In fact, manufacturers frequently change the chemicals in order to avert regulations.   

Why is it popular? When synthetic marijuana hit the U.S., it was marketed as being a “safe,” legal alternative to marijuana. This appealed to young people. Additionally, it was sold in wrapping with a nice, natural image. The easy access — often being sold next to candy or a pack of gum — made many feel like is was harmless. That is a dangerous misconception.

What are the symptoms we are seeing in the ER visits? Extreme anxiety, hallucinations, seizures, rapid heart rate, deadly high-blood pressure, vomiting, stroke, kidney damage, brain damage, and death.  Heart attacks have even been reported.

Hospital emergency room personnel have described the recent wave of patients as extremely violent and out-of-control, almost like the Incredible Hulk. Some have even injured hospital staff. This has led experts to suspect that the manufacturers have recently modified one of their chemicals.  
Can synthetic marijuana be tested in blood or urine samples? It is not easily detected in blood or urine testing. This feature makes it appealing to some users who are concerned that they may be randomly drug tested.   

What are the current laws? In 2013, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) made it illegal to buy, sell or possess a number of chemicals in synthetic marijuana. However, enforcement has been challenging because the products are often sold at gas stations, convenience stores and on the Internet.

Additionally, questionable manufacturers have tried to side-step this issue, or in other words stay one step ahead, by substituting different chemicals in their mixture. In fact, by changing just one molecule, they can have a new chemical that is not illegal — and can be deadly.  

Approximately 11 percent of American high school seniors have used synthetic marijuana in the past year. This makes synthetic marijuana the second most abused drug in our high schools, second only to plant-grown marijuana. It is a problem we cannot ignore. Sadly, teens are still growing and learning, and they do not know how harmful and serious engaging with these drugs is for them (and their friends). One of the keys to stopping it is to get the public health message across that this “synthetic” marijuana can harm and even kill. Let parents know, let kids know.

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