Is synthetic marijuana really turning people into zombies? Watch users high on the drug staggering around with their eyes rolled back, sounding as if they’re possessed by a demon, and you might think you’re seeing an audition for an episode of “The Walking Dead.”
Users of synthetic weed, also known as Spice, K2, Joker, Black Mamba, Kush, Kronic and dozens of other names, have been described as “half-dead” by police and paramedics who pluck them off the streets and get them to emergency rooms. Doctors say many of those patients are in the advanced stages of delirium and have to be revived. One young man, 19-year-old Connor Eckhardt, never made it out of the hospital. The California youth slipped into a coma and died after smoking just one hit of the drug.
Synthetic weed overdoses are increasing nationwide, say officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The largest increases have been seen in the Northeast, primarily driven by overdoses in the New York City area. In Brooklyn, for example, 33 people were recently taken to hospitals after a mass overdose of K2. There are others: A man high on synthetic pot attempted to “surf” on top of a New York City subway car and died when he smashed his head on an overhead beam. In Pennsylvania, synthetic weed was found in the residence of a woman accused of killing her 3-year-old daughter. When officials arrived at the property, the woman was naked and hugging a tree. The most recent mass overdose occurred in Los Angeles in late August when 32 people were hospitalized after smoking what authorities believed to have been Spice.
Designed to mimic the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in natural marijuana, the manmade substance has far more powerful effects. It was first seen in the United States in 2008.
“What K2 does is puts you in a world, a delusional world, have your mind spinning,” said a man who went only by Andrew in an interview with CBS News. “It’s mind-altering.”
Synthetic marijuana is a mixture of dried herbs and even lawn clippings sprayed with chemicals. It is then ground up and either eaten or smoked. Long available in gas stations, corner stores and head shops, this unregulated, unpredictable chemical substance is marketed as a legal high. Although authorities have made it against the law to sell, buy, or possess many of these chemicals, manufacturers sidestep the regulations by constantly changing the chemical makeup of their mixtures. Easy access (a hit costs as little as $1), and the belief that synthetic marijuana is natural and therefore harmless, are said to have contributed to its popularity. Most people aren’t aware that the effects are unlike marijuana, thus repeated use is uncommon, experts say.
A large part of the appeal of synthetic marijuana is that standard drug screens won’t pick it up. For that reason, active military personnel, people on parole, professional athletes and those in treatment for substance use disorders are among the earliest reported users of fake weed. Its low cost has made the drug particularly appealing to the homeless population.
Synthetic cannabinoids, the main active ingredients in synthetic marijuana, get their name from their action on the cannabinoid receptors in the brain. They bond to the same brain cell receptors as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the mind-altering ingredient found in plant-based marijuana, but have a much stronger effect. In neurospeak, THC is a partial agonist; synthetic cannabinoids are full agonists. This makes a big difference because a full agonist elicits a maximum response at the receptor. No amount of THC can have such an effect. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), users of the drug can experience “anxiety and agitation, nausea and vomiting, high blood pressure, shaking and seizures, hallucinations and paranoia, and they may act violently.”
It wasn’t by accident. In the 1990s, Clemson University chemistry professor John W. Huffman created many of the chemicals used in Spice. Huffman was researching the effects of cannabinoids on multiple sclerosis, AIDS and chemotherapy with a grant from NIDA. When his work was published, the method and ingredients Huffman used to make the compounds, including JWH-018, (note his initials in the name) became public and soon marijuana users began spraying them onto dried plant material.
Huffman’s work “is how it all started,” Marilyn Huestis, senior investigator at NIDA, told The Washington Post. “This is how it started. And it’s a very sad thing that it’s happened. They are now off and running. … John’s very distraught that this has all happened.”
Synthetic cannabinoids are highly addictive. People trying to quit may experience the following withdrawal symptoms:
In many cases, people who are addicted to substances like synthetic marijuana are also struggling with a mental illness. Mental health disorders that have been associated with synthetic marijuana addiction include schizophrenia, ADHD, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, PTSD and major depression.
Drug rehab programs can help Spice users recover. If you or your adolescent has developed a dependence on the drug, seek professional help without delay. Treatment for addiction at a young age can help prevent early death or a lifetime of suffering.