The Dangers of Synthetic Marijuana

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What is actually in synthetic weed? You'll be surprised. What is the high like? More surprise. Is it worth it? Read on. Across the United States, synthetic marijuana has been commonly thought of as a cheap version of natural cannabis. It is about to be unmasked for what it really is—a chemical spray of unknown strength, often accompanied by severe side effects. Barbara Carreno, spokesperson at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) headquarters, says that there are over 400 varieties of synthetic marijuana. "The drugs originally come from (India and the Middle East, but mainly) China, and are in powder form. They come in little pots, in smaller quantities, and (are) very potent," said Carreno. A typical manufacturer receives the powder and dissolves it in acetone to create a liquid solution. They then spray it on plant material. As the solution dries, it leaves only the chemical, such as JWH-018, a painkiller; XLR-11, a cancer treatment drug; or JWH-18, used in fertilizers. The chemicals vary widely and many of them have not been tested on humans or animals. Dr. Sherri Kacinko, a toxicologist with NMS Labs in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, says, "(I joke) if you're going to do these, give me a call. Give me your blood and urine, because we're not even allowed to give them (types of synthetic marijuana) to rats." Carreno says the DEA has seen synthetic marijuana "being mixed with rakes in feed troughs, other times in cement mixers…and on tarps in storage units or garages." All a manufacturer has to do is print packaging, insert the plant material, and then deliver it to a willing buyer. Fortunately, the chemicals that are sprayed on the plant material do not interact with the plants themselves. "The plant material…is inert material, like Damiana leaf," said Kacinko. Damiana is a desert shrub native to Southwest Texas. Packages of synthetic marijuana list a number of plants as ingredients, including lion's tail, lotus, and honey-weed. Genetic testing has revealed that the plants listed on the package are often not actually included. The potency of the chemicals is "hit or miss," said Carreno. Some batches are extremely strong, while others are relatively mild. The same brand name on two different packages leaves no clue as to the strength of what is actually contained inside. "There's no quality control here. We've seen K2 (a variety of synthetic marijuana) packages that look identical and contain completely different substances," said Kacinko. The health risks of synthetic marijuana are numerous. Care Esperanza, C.E.O, RN, and certified addiction specialist at Acadiana Addiction Center in Lafayette, Louisiana, says the effects of the drug include "(being) zoned out, delayed responses, and kind of looking at the ceiling (and doing nothing)." Esperanza has also seen patients suffer from hallucinations lasting as long as two weeks ("seeing bedbugs that weren't there"), loss of cognitive functions, and elevated liver functions. The latter is a sign of liver damage. Across the country, documented effects of synthetic marijuana have included: death, increase in heart rate and blood pressure, muscle twitching and agitation; the occurrence of seizures, psychotic episodes, heart attacks, and strokes; kidney damage, (especially in association with the use of packages containing XLR-11) and finally paranoia and weight loss. Esperanza says that synthetic marijuana, unlike natural marijuana, induces a decrease in appetite. "They start eating again after they're done with detox." She is most worried about individuals who relapse. "They're not coming back (cognitively, or to the clinic), especially the younger ones," said Esperanza. The demographic for synthetic marijuana varies. Occasionally a user is over 70, with a little less than half of users being over 30. Kacinko says that for NMS Labs' testing, the median user was "24, 25" and "80% (likely to be) male." Mike Van Dyke, toxicology branch chief for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), said that of 221 cases from Colorado emergency rooms involving the use of synthetic marijuana in August and September of 2013, 59% of those cases were under 30 (and) 75% were male. "I think that's fairly typical for drug use," said Van Dyke. Van Dyke says he believes that natural marijuana and synthetic marijuana have different audiences. "Regular users of marijuana tend not to like the synthetic marijuana. They're like, 'Why would you ever do that? Just use real marijuana,' said Van Dyke. Erik Altieri, communications director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law (NORML), agrees. "Anecdotally, we've heard a lot of stories, and most people don't seem to enjoy it. It makes people feel jittery, uncomfortable, and paranoid," said Altieri. Esperanza reports that synthetic marijuana offers a "more profound high," one that is typically far more powerful than natural marijuana. Altieri says synthetic marijuana is "very much a cousin to alcohol's bathtub gin. It's forcing people to choose a much more dangerous product. Most people who use it prefer to choose natural marijuana." The main attractions of synthetic marijuana are that it is cheaper than recreational marijuana; it is more widely available in smoke shops, online, gas stations, and in paraphernalia shops; and it typically does not show up on a drug test. This last factor is changing. Labs such as NMS are fast developing tests for more varieties of synthetics.

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I am a California and Florida-licensed attorney in good standing in both states, who has also worked as a professional journalist for Knight Ridder Corporation and The New York Times Company, as well as many other magazines, newspapers, and websites. I currently live in the San Francisco Bay Area and have also lived in Florida and Georgia. I have worked at a number of science and art museums, including The American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Exploratorium in San Francisco. I have a background in biology and have been nationally recognized for excellence in science reporting. I currently work as an educator, writer, and attorney.
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