Synthetic Marijuana: Dangerous “Designer” Drug

Published on 
June 25, 2015

Children's Hospital Los Angeles RN Remedies Gloria Verret

At a nursing conference last year, a speaker addressed the issue of synthetic marijuana because her son had fallen ill by smoking the substance. With cool-sounding names like K2, Spice, Molly, Skunk, Moon Rocks, Yucatan Fire, Genie, Zohai and Purple Wave, synthetic marijuana has a special appeal to young people. It is packaged like potpourri and sold as a “safe” or “organic” legal alternative to marijuana. It’s sold in head shops, gas stations and on the Internet, and although it may be labeled “natural,” it is usually made up of some plant material coated with synthetic or “designer” compounds. The ingredients are man-made and not regulated. The people who make these products label them “not for human consumption,” but in fact, they are sold as legal and safe alternatives to marijuana.

Being a safe alternative to marijuana is far from the truth! The United States Drug Enforcement Agency has designated the five active ingredients usually used in Spice, for example, as illegal, but makers get around this by making changes in the mixtures. The mixtures are not regulated, and have proven to be very dangerous—even deadly—to some people who smoke them.

The names sound cool to attract young people. These drugs are popular with high school-aged teens, in part because they are easy to get and are marketed as “natural” and “harmless.” Users report experiences similar to marijuana such as elevated mood, relaxation and alternated perception, but some report stronger effects like extreme anxiety, paranoia and hallucinations.

I reached out to Irene Lim, LCSW, program manager of the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Program here at CHLA. “I would add that the packaging of synthetic marijuana is also very appealing and colorful to youth; they have that ‘cool’ appeal,” says Lim. “And you are correct that the chemicals for this aren’t easy to trace or regulate. The mystery makes it harmful, too.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on some of the cases, and various state departments of health have also talked about some of the health hazards of these substances:

  • In 2013, Colorado hospitals reported an increase in admissions to emergency departments from people using synthetic marijuana. Of the 127 patients, over half had rapid heart rate and high blood pressure, many had aggressive or violent behavior, agitation or confusion, 16 had to be admitted (10 to the intensive care unit), and one 15-year-old boy died.
  • The Texas Poison Center Network reported side effects of agitation, drowsiness, high heart rate and blood pressure and vomiting. Psychological effects were euphoria, paranoia, anxiety, irritability and psychosis. Some users reported palpitations and chest pain, slurred speech, numbness, tingling, seizures and tremors.
  • In Florida, there was a report that two young siblings using Spice were taken to the emergency department because they were suffering from an “acute cerebral infarction,” otherwise known as a stroke. This report also talks about other patients coming in with heart attacks from using these substances.
  • In Arkansas, the Department of Health notes that K2 is legal in that state and that the chemicals in the substance are not regulated or even known. They reported on patients coming in for medical help with elevated heart rate and blood pressure, anxiety, pallor, numbness and tingling, vomiting, agitation, hallucinations tremors and seizures. They point out the symptoms are similar to users of highly potent marijuana
  • In February 2013, the CDC announced that multiple states had reported acute kidney injury from the use of synthetic marijuana. Wyoming reported 16 cases of patients experiencing nausea, vomiting, and abdominal and back pain. All of the patients had to be hospitalized. None of them had previous kidney problems. Five of the 16 needed hemodialysis. The CDC listed 23 other cases in 10 other states also reporting kidney injury from the use of these synthetic drugs.
  • In May, 100 people in Texas fell ill from synthetic cannabis and 150 people were arrested in a nine-state sweep to combat the use of these substances.
  • The LA Times reported that in 2011 there were 29,000 emergency department visits nationwide from fake marijuana use, up from 11,000 in 2010.

When I heard about synthetic marijuana I was taken by surprise. The speaker that I mentioned earlier was also surprised when this substance was the cause of illness in her son. Many parents may not know about it or may think that something that looks like potpourri and is labeled “not for human consumption” is probably just used as potpourri. They may not realize that this is a very dangerous substance that can cause many potential health problems. If your child shows any of the symptoms listed above, or you find any substance that looks like potpourri, be aware that this may be a real danger to your child.