Picture a young man with his eyes rolled back in his head, hyperventilating, dripping buckets of sweat. That’s the scene I witnessed almost five years ago, the first time I saw a bad reaction to synthetic marijuana–also known as K2, spice, spike, and kush. Fortunately, emergency medical technicians were on hand within minutes to rush the young man to a nearby hospital, where he eventually recovered.
Today, synthetic marijuana–dried plant matter with chemicals sprayed on it–is becoming more prevalent and the formulations are becoming more sophisticated. It’s fueling waves of overdoses from New York to Texas. Between this January and May, synthetic marijuana caused 15 deaths in the United States and spurred 3,572 calls to poison control centers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. According to the 2014 Monitoring the Future survey, it’s the third most popular drug among teens, right behind marijuana and Adderall.
In fact, more than one in 20 high school seniors surveyed–5.8 percent–admitted to using synthetic marijuana in the past year. Younger teens use it too: This month in Cleveland, adults found six boys ages 11 to 15, one unconscious from the drug and the others in “trance-like” states. The drug’s allure to young people is partly due to marketing: It comes in shiny packets with cartoonish graphics and catchy names. Its popularity also stems from the following three great myths:
Myth: Synthetic marijuana equals “regular” marijuana. This is a tremendous misconception. Whatever your views are about marijuana, its active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is not in spice, creates a fairly predictable experience: Users rarely end up in an emergency room unless they have a severe anxiety attack. The same is far from true with synthetic marijuana. A user may get a dull high or a devastating one that leads to a seizure or organ failure. In 2011, 28,581 synthetic marijuana users landed in an ER from overdoses and bad reactions.
Myth: Synthetic marijuana is safer than other drugs because you can buy it at gas stations and convenience stores. Despite the fact that unethical store owners are willing to sell synthetic marijuana, it is an illegal, underground product that store employees literally hide under the counter. Its chemical ingredients are often concocted in China, and you can almost guarantee that the entire product is composed of adulterants and psychoactive poisons that are addictive and cause many unwanted effects.
Myth: It cannot be caught in drug tests. This may have been true when the drug first hit the streets in 2008. But today, by and large, it’s not hard to test for most variations of synthetic marijuana. What’s more, some sellers simply slap “new formula” labels on the packages to encourage sales. The labels are often not factual, and users end up with positive drug screens when they thought the new formulas wouldn’t be detected.
Ways to Talk to Kids
These myths are pervasive. To make ensure that the young people you care about don’t believe them, share accurate information in a straightforward way, ideally backed up with a video or other material. Avoid hysterics. Tell them you know they are going to make good decisions, and that you want them to have the facts. Explain that, yes, this substance can give you a “high,” but there can be other outcomes involving catheters, having the side of your face droop from a stroke, or having to relearn the alphabet as a result of seizures.
In addition, if you want to make an impact in your area, consider working with a community coalition to encourage stings for sales of this illegal product. A grassroots element working to ensure that operators of convenience stores, gas stations, bodegas, and tobacco shops would lose their livelihood if they are caught selling synthetic marijuana would go a long way in making the drug more scarce–and out of the hands of teens.
Of course, I believe the key to helping those with substance use disorders get off drugs is effective treatment. But in the case of synthetic marijuana, its manufacture is so unregulated, and its effects are so unpredictable and outside the spectrum of ”normal” drugs, that it is something we should—and could—make much less available if we really try.
Vice President, Clinical Director
Phoenix House, Texas
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