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K2 Trend Not Slowing Down

By Sonam Vashi
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

“Dude, I honestly think I’m dying.”

David, a 19-year-old college student from Atlanta, said this to a friend after trying synthetic marijuana last winter. Just minutes after smoking it, David’s vision blurred. He collapsed to the ground. His heart rate sped up, and he felt intense panic and paranoia.

“I thought it’d be safer than regular marijuana,” says David, who asked that his last name not be used. “But it wasn’t.”

The synthetic marijuana David tried is one of several new designer drugs gaining popularity, often sold under names such as K2 and Spice. The active ingredients in the drug are synthetic cannabinoids: compounds made in labs to mimic the effects of marijuana.

Statistics show that more people like David are experimenting with these drugs. Poison control centers are getting more calls about these drugs. Lawmakers are taking action. And yet, it's a multi-billion dollar industry that shows no signs of slowing down.

Rising Trend

More than 100 different synthetic cannabinoid compounds are in circulation, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The drugs are sold online and at some convenience stores, gas stations, and head shops, often labeled as incense, potpourri, or herbal supplements. These packets of herbs are sprayed with synthetic chemicals and may have labels that say, “Not for Human Consumption.”

Synthetic marijuana products are usually smoked with pipes or joints. Some people make tea with it. Other street names include Black Mamba, Bombay Blue, Fake Weed, Genie, and Zohai.

In 2011, the synthetic herbal incense trade was a $7.6 billion industry, and it’s growing, says Rick Broider, president of the North American Herbal Incense Trade Association. Broider says people are using these products outside of their intended purpose, which means they are taking a personal risk.

From 2010 to 2011, calls to poison control centers nationwide about synthetic marijuana more than doubled from 3,000 to 7,000 and are on track to increase this year, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. In the first half of 2012, about 3,400 calls were reported.

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. In suburban Atlanta, the parents of a 16-year-old say he died after smoking synthetic marijuana and have sued the product’s distributor. 

“This isn’t a problem that’s waning,” says Mark Ryan, MD, director of the Louisiana Poison Center. He estimates that his center receives at least one call per day regarding synthetic marijuana.

“It’s something that’s going strong and growing,” he says.

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