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Synthetic Marijuana: A Growing Issue

September 19, 2014  |  Falmouth Enterprise

Dr. Michael Bihari

Recent news reports have noted that authorities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire are cracking down on “synthetic marijuana,” a drug that has been linked to a series of overdoses while it remains on store shelves despite federal government attempts to ban it.

The harmful effects of synthetic marijuana were first reported in the U.S. in 2009. Since then, the use of these products have spread throughout the country.

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, the products sold as “fake” marijuana are — in reality — very different from marijuana; rather, they are a mixture of herbs and spices sprayed with a synthetic compound chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. The various brands of "fake weed" are usually purchased in tobacco shops, convenience stores, gas stations, and over the Internet.

What's In a Name?

“Fake weed” is typically sold in foil packets or silvery plastic bags of dried leaves and often marketed as incense or potpourri. These products are sold under many names including Spice, K2, Legal Devil, LOL, Scooby Snax, the Presidential, Demon, Tsunami and many others; and, come in such flavors as grape, mango, strawberry, apple and watermelon. The problems recently reported in New Hampshire were caused by a bubblegum flavored product known as “Smacked.”

"Fake weed" is usually smoked in joints or pipes, but some users make it into a tea.

A Google search brings up hundreds of sites where these synthetic drugs can be purchased for about $10 to $15 per gram. One site selling a wide variety of “herbal incense blends” promotes two new products (a new formulation of Spice and a new product called Atomic Bomb) with the following: “Beat the DEA ban with our new legal in all 50 states of the USA Am-Hi-Co Herbal Incense. New formulation 100% legal in USA and most countries worldwide. Just as strong as the original — even more collectable than ever…..50% stronger than the old blends.”

Another product available online has the following disclaimer:  “Herbal Incense is intended only to be used as an aromatic potpourri only. It is not designed or intended for human consumption. Both the manufacturers and retailers of this product take no responsibility for the incorrect use or misuse of this product.”

A Chemistry Experiment in Your Teen's Body

All of these drugs are dangerous and potentially life-threatening, and can have significant effects on your teen's mind and body.

Side effects of "fake weed" include hallucinations, a rapid heart rate, elevated blood pressure, vomiting, agitation, seizures, mood swings, paranoia, panic attacks, tremors, dizziness, perception disorders, loss of physical control and psychotic behavior.

Some of the chemicals present in "fake weed" may be stored in the body for long periods of time, and therefore the long-term effects on humans are not fully known.

Despite unpleasant and sometimes frightening side effects, the cravings can be intense and some users become addicted to the drug.

Buying "fake weed" on the Internet can be especially dangerous because it may not be known where the products come from or what type or amount of chemical has been used.

Manufacturers of this product are not regulated and are often unknown since these products are purchased via the Internet whether wholesale or retail. Several websites that sell the product are based in China. 

A Growing Problem

According to the DEA, more than 100 different synthetic cannabinoid (?marijuana-like) compounds are in circulation. In 2011, the synthetic herbal incense trade was a $7.6 billion industry, and growing. The large profits from sales, plus the fact that these products can be easily made and changed to stay one step ahead of federal, state, and local law enforcement, means there is little incentive to stop making and selling "fake weed.” There is also a huge financial incentive to make and sell these products. It is estimated that a $5000 investment in raw materials and packaging can reap a profit of $250,000!

In the 2013 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary, the DEA noted that “The threat posed by synthetic cannabinoids (fake marijuana) will most likely continue to increase. The chemical make-up of these drugs often differs by only one compound. As DEA exercises its scheduling authority to control certain substances, producers will quickly change the chemical component of the newly banned substance to create a new one.” 

According to a 2011 study by the University of Michigan, 11.4% of high school seniors admitted to using synthetic marijuana in the past year. However, in the 2013 survey in Falmouth High School the following question was asked, “On how many occasions have you used synthetic marijuana (K2, Spice, etc.) during the past 30 days.” The survey results indicated that less than 4% of local students had tried fake weed.

Given the regional increase in use of synthetic marijuana and the serious health consequences, parents should talk to their teens about the dangers of these products and the potential short-term and long-term health risks.

The next time you get a fill-up or shop in a convenience store, take a look to see if any of these products are available. If they are, let the owner know they are potentially seriously harming the health of our kids.  These substances are dangerous and anybody who uses them is playing Russian roulette.

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