The story of Spice, which is a street name for synthetic cannabis, runs from America across the globe to drug manufacturers in Asia. The most basic definition of synthetic cannabis must look at its ingredients. To make synthetic cannabis, different industrial chemicals are sprayed on materials like lawn clippings and dried leaves. This drug can also be sold in liquids, usually called liquid incense, which people may vaporize or inhale in e-cigarettes.
The key to understanding the extreme danger of synthetic cannabis is to consider its production. This drug is made to look like marijuana, but it is reportedly 4-100 times more potent. The range in potency owes to the different chemicals that are in the liquid version or those that are sprayed on whatever weed-like substance the maker is using. Some of these chemicals can be poisonous. There is absolutely no guarantee that any batch of synthetic marijuana is safe to consume.
Where Did Synthetic Marijuana Come From?
Synthetic marijuana has a unique history. In the 1990s, American chemist John W. Huffman wanted to run experiments to test the therapeutic benefits of marijuana. He made his own marijuana-like substance because, in his experience, it was difficult to get permission to use real marijuana in experiments (since marijuana is a Schedule 1 controlled drug per the federal government).
One of the marijuana-like substances that he made proved to help brain tumors and non-melanoma skin cancer in rats. In the mid-2000s, Huffman published his research, which included the formula to make this synthetic marijuana. It is thought that illegal drug labs read this paper, or related reports about it, and began to manufacture this drug.
How Do People Get Synthetic Marijuana?
In the US, synthetic marijuana is typically packaged and sold in bright bags (often made of foil) and marketed under different names. There are thought to be hundreds of differently named synthetic marijuana products, but some of the most commonly seen names are:
- Fake weed
- Black Mamba
- Yucatan Fire
- Bombay Blue
The packages containing synthetic marijuana are sold in places like corner stores, gas stations, and head shops. They are typically labeled as “incense” and “not for human consumption.” However, individuals who sell this drug and those who buy it understand that this language is used to try to get around customs officials (again, since much of synthetic marijuana is made outside the US).
One very concerning component of synthetic marijuana sales is that people may think that this drug is organic, just like marijuana, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The only organic matter that may be involved, like grass clippings, has been coated with potentially lethal or harmful chemicals.
Who Is Most at Risk for Synthetic Marijuana Abuse?
In view of the low cost and accessibility, it is not surprising that some populations are more vulnerable to abuse of this drug compared to more stable demographics. The populations most likely to engage in synthetic marijuana use are:
- Young people, such as those in the 14-27 age group
- The homeless
- Individuals in prison
- Individuals on probation (see further explanation below)
- Members of the military (Note: It appears the military has banned the sale of synthetic marijuana, under the guise of incense, on its bases.)
How Does Synthetic Marijuana Interact with the Brain?
As covered in a Forbes article, THC is a main active ingredient in (real) marijuana. Synthetic THC acts like marijuana in the brain and binds to the CB1 receptor. Organic THC will only partially activate the CB1 receptor whereas synthetic THC is a full antagonist, which means that it will completely activate this receptor. The physical effects are therefore more intense and dangerous.
The synthetic marijuana that Huffman first created in the 1990s included synthetic THC. The synthetic marijuana sold in shops or on the street may not even include this drug, but can include compounds equally or even more dangerous and potentially toxic. For this reason, as stated, using synthetic marijuana is akin to playing Russian roulette. Huffman, in an interview on this topic, was astounded that anyone would take synthetic marijuana, given the risks. However, as addiction specialists understand, a person who is entrenched in addiction has an incentive to take such risks.
Are There Any Reports of Someone Overdosing on Synthetic Marijuana?
There are numerous reports of fatal and non-fatal overdoses on synthetic marijuana. As The New York Times has reported, in July 2016, 33 homeless individuals in Brooklyn, New York, were admitted to area hospitals after overdosing on a dangerous batch of synthetic marijuana. Many, if not all, of these individuals live on the streets near the Myrtle-Wykoff train station, an area known to locals as “K2 Heaven.” This area is among the most socioeconomically devastated in New York City; poverty is deeply entrenched. Locals reported that they are used to seeing the homeless have a zombie-like appearance due to extensive drug use. However, during the July 2016 incident, locals and passersby were shocked into action and called 911 because so many of the local homeless appeared to be in severe distress. Many could not stand and at least one man was passed out on the sidewalk.
On a national scale, a survey of hospital reports in 2012 found that synthetic marijuana abuse was related to 352 visits to emergency rooms (This number does not reflect 2012 alone and may include multiple years.). Individuals who sought emergency room help presented with different symptoms, including suicidal feelings, extremely elevated blood pressure and heart rate, anxiety attacks, comas, and seizures.
CBS has reported that from January to June 2015, poison control centers across the US experienced a 229 percent increase in the number of inquiries about synthetic marijuana use. As of the date of the report, there had been 2,961 callers, mostly male, and with a median age of 26 years. Of the callers, 11 percent described life-threating symptoms. The report revealed that 1,407 callers were experiencing non-life-threatening symptoms, but they did need treatment.
What Are the Side Effects of Synthetic Marijuana?
Since synthetic marijuana can contain any number of different chemicals, there are many different possible side effects. According to a presentation from the Bragg Hill Community Coalition, Community Coalitions of Virginia, the following are some of the side effects that individuals who use synthetic marijuana have reported:
- Increased respiration rate
- Elevated blood pressure
- Suicide attempts
In addition, synthetic marijuana is known to cause psychosis. When a person experiences drug-induced psychosis, a host of symptoms may emerge, including but not limited to feeling as if one is out of one’s body, losing touch with reality, and abnormal thinking. These symptoms are similar to what a person diagnosed with schizophrenia may experience. With prompt medical intervention, the affected person’s normal cognitive functioning can be restored.
Is Synthetic Marijuana Illegal?
The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) prohibits the sale of some of the most commonly used chemicals in synthetic marijuana. However, as there are numerous chemicals used, it is going to be difficult for the DEA to know about each and every kind, let alone ban them. The sheer variety of the chemicals involved in the manufacture and sale of marijuana give the makers a dangerous advantage over law enforcement. For this reason, it is especially important that the public be educated on the hazards associated with synthetic marijuana use.
States are cracking down on synthetic marijuana. Presently, at least three states have implemented bans on the sale of synthetic marijuana in retail shops. These states are New Hampshire, New York, and Nebraska. This measure appears to be working in New York, a state for which there is some available data. Based on one report, the number of hospital visits related to synthetic marijuana use in New York has dropped by 85 percent since the new policies were put in place.
However, banning the sale of synthetic marijuana in shops has likely moved commerce to the street level. States may be able to charge street-level sellers under existing criminal laws related to drug trafficking, or they will have to pass new laws that target this drug category. It may be especially difficult for law enforcement, however, to stop online sales. This is yet another reason why public education is key in this area. If the demand falls, so too will the supply.
How Is Synthetic Marijuana Abuse Treated?
Treatment is available for anyone who is dealing with synthetic marijuana abuse. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse notes, at present there are no medications that specifically target synthetic marijuana abuse. However, the research-based therapies that are used to treat a host of drugs of abuse can be adapted to help a person experiencing synthetic marijuana abuse.
Individuals who are not familiar with the drug treatment landscape need not be surprised to learn that therapy can be adapted, as needed, to whatever drug of abuse is at issue in a person’s life. The specific type of drug that a person abuses is a factor in the addiction, not actually the cause of addiction. It is easy to prove this point with this simple and universal observation: When a person who is addicted to a drug cannot access that drug, alternatives will be sought.
Therapy addresses the thoughts and emotions that underlie an addiction, be it to an opiate, such as heroin, or a synthetic drug, such as Spice. The following are some of the most commonly used research-based therapies in drug rehab centers:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
- Motivational Enhancement Therapy
- Contingency Management
- Motivational Interviewing
- The Matrix Model
- Peer support or 12-Step facilitation therapy
- Family therapy
According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 22.7 million Americans, in the 12 or older age group, were considered to be in need of drug treatment, but only 2.5 million actually got help at a qualified rehab center. The gap in treatment can be especially concerning in the face of a potent drug such as synthetic marijuana. In view of the risks inherent in taking this drug, it is important to know that help is available. In addition to treatment for the abuse or addiction, the affected individual can begin to get help for any physical damage that the chemicals in this drug have caused.
Since synthetic marijuana often affects youth and socioeconomically depressed populations, certain services may be particularly helpful during the rehab process. Some rehab programs are adolescent-only or mixed age, with an adolescent treatment focus for that group.
Regarding other affected populations, such as the homeless, rehab programs with a strong case management focus may be best suited to help. Anyone, irrespective of their background, can become homeless as a result of drug abuse or due to another cause, such as a mental health disorder. Case management services include help with housing, transportation (which is needed with an outpatient program), job training and placement, support for educational pursuits, childcare, and assistance navigating the public benefits system. Case management services can help a recovering person to get a foothold in the world that is needed to prevent relapse and start living a fulfilling life.
In the media, there is much discussion about the drug abuse epidemic in America. But what the country does not often see are the many individuals who are currently in recovery. Rehab can provide innumerable benefits, including helping people to see that a fresh start is immediately within their grasp.