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Synthetic Marijuana Grows Into Problem for Police, Poison Centers

U.S. drug officials monitor growing use of legal products that have effects similar to, or even more potent, than real marijuana.

A new, “legal” way to get high is becoming a growing problem for authorities and the people who abuse various products containing synthetic marijuana.

Products containing synthetic marijuana mimic the effects of traditional marijuana. The products are largely unregulated and are generally available in local tobacco shops, drug officials said.

The suspected drugs are packaged as potpourri or incense, under names such as "K2," "Black Mamba" and more. They are sold in small quantities such as 1, 3 or 4 grams.

Most of the packaging on these products says “lab certified” or “Not for human consumption.” But experts say the sellers and the customers know smoking it can get you high.

"This incense is hundreds of times more expensive than the other incense, so it's kind of sold with kind of a wink and a nod," said Special Agent Will Taylor, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Chicago Field Division.

"These store owners and people don't care what happens," Taylor said. "For them it's all about making money."

For some people, the effects of smoking the synthetic weed will be much like smoking regular weed—some paranoia, some giddiness and bloodshot eyes. For others, products containing the synthetic substance can lead to severe panic attacks, high blood pressure, nausea and an increased heart rate. 

The drug, and its dangers, were widely publicized earlier this month when Karen Dobner said she when he crashed his car in Batavia Township.

Some of these attempts to get high end with a call for help. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 2,874 calls related to synthetic marijuana nationwide in 2010. The centers this year already had 2,052 calls as of May 12.

Illinois centers this year have already received double the number of synthetic marijuana calls than last year.

“This stuff is very prevalent and it’s still out there and causing problems,” said Dr. Anthony Scalzo, medical director of the Missouri Regional Poison Center. “I can’t tell you the number of parents who have contacted me … I have talked to so many parents whose kids are so messed up from this stuff.”

Making A Fake

Creating synthetic marijuana, or fake weed as it's sometimes called, requires someone with a chemist's background and leaves that can substitute for the real thing.

The manufacturers create substances that have a similar chemical makeup to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Multiple media outlets, including Bloomberg Business Week and NPR affiliate WFAE, report that synthetic drug makers likely used the published work of John W. Huffman to create their products.

Huffman is a retired professor from Clemson University who studied how to make compounds that acted like marijuana. Several compounds are named with Huffman's initials, JWH.

The chemists create a form of JWH or similar compounds to spray onto the leaves of spices one could normally find at stores such as Pier 1 Imports, Scalzo said.

Special Agent Taylor said synthetic marijuana is mostly produced overseas, in countries such as China or India. Then it's ready to order or purchase online, or in tobacco shops, convenience stores and gas stations. Declaring substances such as these illegal requires an exhaustive process. To read more about the steps, click .

Taylor said the drugs were a problem in Europe about three years ago. The problem has slowly crept into the U.S.

"We don’t really know how widespread it is. Don’t know much about it, other than we’ve heard calls to poison control centers have increased dramatically," Taylor said.

More Than A High?

Scalzo said many of the effects of synthetic cannabinoids are still mysterious.

“We don’t know all of the symptoms,” he said. “I can explain the heart rate. I can explain the agitation … I can understand what appears to be some of the hallucinations. I can’t explain the blood pressure.”

Scalzo said his office is now dealing with bad reactions to substances that were never intended to be drugs in the first place.

JWH-018, a now-banned compound found commonly in synthetic marijuana, was first designed to test a receptor in the brain.

Now, young people are ingesting a drug hundreds of times more potent than THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. And, those young people are experiencing “exaggerated effects” as well.

“They go to the same receptor in the brain that marijuana goes to, but they don’t do the same thing,” Scalzo said. “These receptors are not like an isolated country on an island, they all communicate with each other.”

The short-term results include a pounding heartbeat with a rate more than 170, and high blood pressure. Scalzo has also heard of users who experience extreme anxiety, some paranoia, and thoughts of suicide.

“This stuff is very prevalent and it’s still out there and causing problems,” he said. “I can’t tell you the number of parents who have contacted me … I have talked to so many parents whose kids are so messed up from this stuff.”

Among the heartbroken parents are Iowans missing David Mitchell Rozga, a teenager who shot himself last year about an hour after smoking K2.

“It’s like a Russian Roulette,” Scalzo said. “I know people smoke it and the person may have nothing but a positive experience and say this is great stuff, but then there are the people admitted to my emergency room.”

Scalzo said the uptick in poison center calls are “just the tip of the iceberg,” because those are only the bad reactions physicians hear about.

Some drug-test companies, namely NMS Labs, are now able to detect synthetic cannabinoids in urine samples. But a person taking the drugs will still pass most urine drug tests.

“Your average doctor of even a major medical center (does not have a test for it),” Scalzo said. “If they don’t tell you that they took it, I don’t know … it doesn’t cross with THC.”

Long-term effects of the drug are unknown, although Scalzo hears anecdotes from parents about children changing moods.

While the acute effects from synthetic marijuana can be treated with a relaxed atmosphere and sedatives, long-term treatment is more complex and is not universally agreed upon.

“Neurobiology cannot come up with a single rubric to explain all of the symptoms that we’re seeing with these things,” Scalzo said. “It makes me wonder if there are things in there we don’t even know. This stuff is worse than marijuana. This stuff is bad.”

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Kevin Sterling July 26, 2011 at 01:38 PM
Unintended consequences may suck, but they're inevitable. Crack cocaine, crystal meth, and now synthetic cannabis are all nothing other than the red headed step children of the idiocy of prohibition. Good luck making it illegal, there are literally hundreds of chemicals that qualify. Why not do the sensible thing and admit that the epic failure of public policy which we call the war on (some) drugs is the failure that it is? It's not like you're fooling anyone in refusing to admit that which is obvious. Or you can choose to continue to prosecute the failure and watch the red headed step children continue to proliferate. Your choice. Your fault.
Justin July 26, 2011 at 02:55 PM
I'm concerned about a drug that I have seen for sale in most gas stations in my area that sounds way worse than this stuff. It has been making people physically ill, violent, or even cause death. It is also responsible for auto accidents, as users' senses and perceptions are distorted. It usually comes in cans or bottles labeled "Budweiser," "Coors," or "Natural Light." It is placed next to other beverages but is often more expensive and is sold with a wink and a nod. This stuff is bad, and there's just no telling how widespread it's use is. Watch out!
Clinton Ainsworth July 26, 2011 at 03:54 PM
Clint A To say that this stuff is worse than cannabis implies that cannabis is bad. The truth of the matter is that cannabis is sacrament given to humanity to facilitate our spiritual evolution and promote a greater sense of enlightenment. The evil powers that be don't want a population of caring loving non-stressed citizens that can think for themselves, they want controllable sheeple that worry and fret and resort to irrational behavior and are then placated and consequently controlled by legal and far more destructive drugs like alcohol and tobacco. Rise up and demand your freedom and rights!
Conservative Christian July 26, 2011 at 05:20 PM
Jesus said to do unto others as we would have them to do unto us. None of us would want our child thrown in jail with the sexual predators over marijuana. None of us would want to see an older family member’s home confiscated and sold by the police for growing a couple of marijuana plants for their aches and pains. It’s time to stop putting our own family members in jail over marijuana. If ordinary Americans could grow a little marijuana in their own back yards, it would be about as valuable as home-grown tomatoes. Let's put the criminals out of business and get them out of our neighborhoods. Let's let ordinary Americans grow a little marijuana in their own back yards. Here's one way that IT IS REALLY WORKING: Arresting the criminals and collecting a fee from the registered growers (and bringing in thousands of dollars to support the county budget); what a great plan! This is the way to build a better America! http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/2011/07/the-pot-republic-one-sheriffs-quietly-radical-experiment.html
Jeremy Devor July 26, 2011 at 06:50 PM
"This stuff is worse than marijuana." Wow, I hope it is not as bad as tabacco or alcohol! As a guy who regularly smokes marijuana, I am obviously biased about this. However, I can relate that the majority of my pot smoking friends and pot dealers that I know have given up on weed because of this synthetic drug. Because pot is needlessly illegal, these people were previously all criminals because they chose a safe recreational drug instead of alcohol. But now, thanks to modern science, the users and dealers have stopped being criminals! What does our law enforcement want to do about it? Make them criminals again! As for my own experience, I smoke K2 or a similar drug when I run out of pot. It is about as good as medium grade pot, and slightly cheaper, but there are not any major side effects of the many different brands I have tried. I know people who smoke it every weekend. And, instead of being a gateway drug or some nonsense, people are just happy to be able to relax at home on their time off without worrying about going to jail or losing their job.
andy July 26, 2011 at 07:19 PM
Geee, maybe we should find a legal, natural substitute for this stuff. Like POT. Jeez. Then we could smoke a semi-truck full and not even blink. But noooooo... Mary Jane should remain illegal. That way I can still get my prison building contracts, and my Uncle Jimmy will keep is job as a guard. Also, I can cut down all the tree's on my property to make National Enquirer magazines, and not use that silly , fast growing, biomass called hemp. Nooo... why should we act like civilized, modern adults here. We should act like imbeciles instead.
andy July 26, 2011 at 07:19 PM
Geee, maybe we should find a legal, natural substitute for this stuff. Like POT. Jeez. Then we could smoke a semi-truck full and not even blink. But noooooo... Mary Jane should remain illegal. That way I can still get my prison building contracts, and my Uncle Jimmy will keep is job as a guard. Also, I can cut down all the tree's on my property to make National Enquirer magazines, and not use that silly , fast growing, biomass called hemp. Nooo... why should we act like civilized, modern adults here. We should act like imbeciles instead.
andy July 26, 2011 at 07:20 PM
Geee, maybe we should find a legal, natural substitute for this stuff. Like POT. Jeez. Then we could smoke a semi-truck full and not even blink. But noooooo... Mary Jane should remain illegal. That way I can still get my prison building contracts, and my Uncle Jimmy will keep is job as a guard. Also, I can cut down all the tree's on my property to make National Enquirer magazines, and not use that silly , fast growing, biomass called hemp. Nooo... why should we act like civilized, modern adults here. We should act like imbeciles instead.
andy July 26, 2011 at 07:20 PM
Geee, maybe we should find a legal, natural substitute for this stuff. Like POT. Jeez. Then we could smoke a semi-truck full and not even blink. But noooooo... Mary Jane should remain illegal. That way I can still get my prison building contracts, and my Uncle Jimmy will keep is job as a guard. Also, I can cut down all the tree's on my property to make National Enquirer magazines, and not use that silly , fast growing, biomass called hemp. Nooo... why should we act like civilized, modern adults here. We should act like imbeciles instead.
Jim todd July 26, 2011 at 07:49 PM
One day there is going to be a real threat to people's health, and the government will not be able to spread the alarm because it has no credibility left.
TJS July 26, 2011 at 07:54 PM
My 20 year old nephew is smoking this garbage on a regular basis. It has made him very on edge and moody when he doesnt have any and when he has smoked it, it looks like a burnt out addict. Its very sad to watch - especially since nobody really knows the long term effects or if one day it will cause him to go off the deep end... I have also noticed that since he has been smoking this crap, his teeth have become very discolored. Its doing something to his teeth! I can only imagine what its doing to his body.. It is very upsetting to me and his parents but now that he is 20 years old he thinks he can do whatever he wants - and frankly, how do you stop him? We have tried. Sad..
John Denton July 27, 2011 at 05:12 PM
where's my comment?
None Ofyourbusiness September 27, 2011 at 12:15 AM
This. Yes.
None Ofyourbusiness September 27, 2011 at 12:19 AM
Right here ^^^
drea December 23, 2011 at 04:09 AM
My boyfriend 28 smokes this "potpourri" legal human smoke and I hate it. It makes him extremely moody when he doesnt have any as he got addicted to it really fast just like a crack addiction. When he is on it, he can't eat. Suppresses his appetite big time and he lost like 20lbs instantly. He acts wicked weird when he is on it and can't support any conversation. It's annoying. He passes out after having like ten bowls of it. Im shocked that he didnt have a heart attack yet. I tried everything to convince him and nothing even broke up with him. HE did stop for a little bit then right back to it cause the addiction is high because of the heart race adrenaline rush. His lungs sound really awful. I hope the govt in NY state especially changes the laws on this please!!!!!!

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