“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.
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.
Bans May Fail
Lawmakers have been working on the state and federal levels to combat the growing trend. Forty-one states have banned some synthetic cannabinoids. In July, Congress passed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act, which bans five kinds of synthetic cannabinoids and some bath salts. However, producers continue to modify old compounds and develop new ones, effectively skirting the law.
“Prohibition [of synthetic drugs] fails because it attacks the supply,” Broider says. “As long as the demand is there, producers will keep finding new ways to get these products out there.”
DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno says the new regulations are working.
“By making these substances harder to obtain, we hope to control experimentation,” Carreno says. “I believe as we get deeper into our investigation, we will put a crimp on this problem.”
During a nationwide crackdown in July, the DEA seized 5 million packets of finished designer synthetic drugs, along with materials to make 10 million more packets.
Synthetic marijuana is generally more potent than regular marijuana. Ryan says people who have tried it report side effects such as anxiety, combativeness, increased heart rate, paranoia, agitation, and hallucinations after using the drugs. Other effects include vomiting and seizures. “Some of them are delusional or paranoid quickly after using the product,” Ryan says. “We’re seeing psychotic breaks in people that have no psychotic history.”
Because the drugs are so new, little research is available on their long-term effects.
“These compounds, we don’t know how they’re metabolized in the body. Every time they come out with a new one, we don’t know the effects or the long-term toxicity for years,” says Marilyn A. Huestis, PhD, of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Bethesda, Md. “There’s no quality control here.”
The DEA reports that several makers of synthetic marijuana products are based outside of the U.S. and made without quality control measures, which add to the risk.
Retail marketing has targeted teens and young adults with claims like these products will not show up in urine drug tests.
Synthetic brands also tend to be cheaper than the real thing, selling for as little as $5 per gram online.
John, a college student from Atlanta, says he tried synthetic marijuana last winter because he thought it was legal -- or at least “more legal” than regular marijuana.
“I thought that you couldn’t get in trouble for it like with other drugs,” says John, who asked that his last name not be used.
Today, David and John say they will never try synthetic drugs again.
“It hit so fast. ... I felt like I was going to die,” says David. “It was awful. I wish I’d never tried it.”