Cheap, unpredictable and hard to regulate, synthetic marijuana has emergency responders nationwide scrambling to save lives. Users expecting synthetic marijuana to give them a mellow buzz similar to the real thing can get a nasty surprise, as the two are very different. Chemicals added to synthetic drugs can make them dangerous and sometimes deadly, more similar to PCP.
Synthetic drugs have been around for years. Also known as “synthetic cannabinoids,” the term encompasses a range of mind-altering chemicals that are constantly evolving and are marketed in wildly divergent ways. It’s often billed as synthetic marijuana, but it has nothing to do with marijuana. It’s a completely chemical product. It kind of has the look of marijuana, maybe, because it’s a plant material, it’s dry, it comes out of a pouch, you roll it up, you smoke it like you would a marijuana joint. But the effects are completely different. Pharmacologically it’s completely different. Chemically, it’s completely different.
But links between the drugs and violence are almost entirely grounded in anecdotal evidence rather than hard data. Because the mixtures change by the batch in part to skirt drug laws, the drugs are difficult to test — and overdoses are difficult to treat.
The truth about synthetic drugs, law enforcement officials and scientists say, is that the danger lies in the mystery. “Synthetic drugs” don’t refer to a single substance but to a multitude of combinations concocted in laboratories that federal investigators say are mostly in China.
The active ingredients are so shifting in form — the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has tracked more than 300 iterations in less than a decade — that no one can say definitively what effect they have on users or those around them.
First-hand observers describe reactions ranging from a blank, zombielike stare to twitchy agitation to people completely disoriented, disconnected and unconscious.
Recently, an even more dangerous offering known as Trainwreck has been known to combine synthetic drugs with heroin and PCP. First responders say they suspect some users are mixing the synthetics with prescription mental-health medications.
Data obtained by The Washington Post show that emergency room visits for synthetic cannabinoids — commonly referred to on the street by such names as K2, Spice, Scooby Snax and Bizarro — have grown steadily since 2013.
The information gap strikes when a spice overdose happens, leaving first-responders uncertain of exactly which chemicals were ingested. Paramedics say that some violent synthetic-drug users might not respond to sedatives the way a PCP user would. And doctors with proven success reviving victims of heroin overdoses with Naloxone can be stymied by synthetics.
Eric Wish, an associate professor and director of the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland, said researchers “are receiving constant reports of people showing up in emergency rooms with all sorts of bizarre symptoms.”
Because doctors know so little about the chemicals involved, the users are effectively “playing Russian roulette with their bodies,” Wish said.
According to DEA officials, the chemicals are often intentionally mislabeled, for example as “white paint powder,” when they arrive from China. American manufacturers then mix them with acetone and spray them onto leaves. The drugs are then packaged and sold as “incense” or “potpourri” in colorful packets featuring cartoon characters.
In the DC area, local gas stations and convenience stores often sell the drugs in smaller packets for $5. On the street, a single rolled cigarette can sell for $2. There is no telling how one packet differs from another with the same label.
“They are being marketed as a legal high,” said Joshua Wansley, who works intelligence in the DEA’s Washington office. “The implicit message is that it’s safe.”
Spike Nation, last week’s New York Times story about synthetic drugs (spike aka spice), showed how the ever-evolving, poorly-understood substance is ravaging the impoverished population of Syracuse, New York, sending the city’s down-trodden into violent fits that include full-on animalistic attacks on emergency responders, complete with seizures and vomit-hurling.
In the following video, Spice Boys, VICE reporter Ben Ferguson travels to Manchester, UK to meet some users who have become addicted to the over-the-counter substance. Though still currently legal in Britain, they are soon to be outlawed—the British government announced bans in May, which comes as a response to the growing number of reports of students overdosing on synthetic drugs after using them recreationally.
[h/t: WaPo, Vice]