It goes by names like “Spice,” “K2,” “Black Magic,” “Demon,” “Blaze," "Red X Dawn" and "Paradise."
But experts have another name for synthetic marijuana: poison.
Indeed, it's much more dangerous than the real thing, experts say, and has been linked to heart attacks, kidney failure, psychosis, seizures, hallucinations, aggressive behavior, difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, severe agitation, suicide ideation, catatonia – and even rare reports of deaths.
“You know, I’ve been studying emerging drugs in this country for over 30 years, and synthetic marijuana really scares me,” Eric Wish, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland, College Park, told Youth Today.
“It is literally playing Russian roulette when you take these drugs, and that’s what we have to tell the youth of this country,” he said.
As Wish and other experts note, manufacturers of the synthetics, designed to mimic the effects of marijuana, are constantly changing the chemical makeup to circumvent federal and state laws banning specific chemicals used in synthetic marijuana.
So the makers of the synthetic cannabinoids -- the Drug Enforcement Administration says they’re based in China – can continue to legally export them into the United States, where they can still be bought legally.
‘Using Our Kids as Guinea Pigs’
Barbara Carreno, a spokeswoman at the DEA’s headquarters in Washington, notes the synthetic cannabinoids that the Chinese chemists have copied were originally created in labs to study cannabinoid receptors in the brain and have never even been tested on humans.
“These chemists – and I call them ‘rogue chemists’ – they are using our kids as guinea pigs to test their products because there’s just no controls whatsoever, and they have a huge market here,” Carreno said. “There’s no quality control of any kind. You truly have no idea what you’re getting.”
With low costs and overhead for the chemists as well as the manufacturers, distributors and retailers selling synthetic marijuana, the profit margins are extremely high, Carreno said.
The chemicals are bought in bulk from Chinese makers on the Internet as a powder, mixed with liquid acetone (the stuff used to remove nail polish), then sprayed onto a dry, leafy plant material. The acetone then evaporates, leaving the chemicals infused in the plant material, which is then sold as synthetic marijuana in small packages for about $20 each on the Internet, in head shops and at gas stations and convenience stores.
Making synthetic pot requires little expertise or space. It’s been done in garages, storage units, even feeding troughs at farms.
Carreno got a sense of how profitable the synthetic marijuana is – and how unscrupulous sellers are – after the DEA gave public notice in 2010 that some of the chemicals used to make the fake pot would become illegal within 30 days.
“We got so many calls from retailers saying, ‘Are they illegal yet? Are they illegal yet? Are they illegal yet?’” Carreno said. “And we would talk to them about, ‘You know, this stuff is harmful. You know this stuff is killing people. You know this stuff is making people crazy so you shouldn’t be selling this anyway.’
“So we tried to talk to them about being good citizens and just voluntarily stopping now rather than waiting until they had to.”
But they had no interest in stopping sales of the synthetic pot, and some owners of gas stations and convenience stores said they had derived 50 percent of their profit from sales of it.
Carreno has harsh words for the makers of the chemicals, the people who spray it onto the plant material and distribute it and the retailers who sell the synthetic marijuana.
“They’re criminals. They’re crooks. And they are drug-trafficking organizations just the same as the Mexican cartels or the Colombian cartels,” she said. “They’re all in it for the money.”
When Congress banned more chemicals found in synthetic marijuana in 2012, the foreign chemists again changed their formulas so what they exported remained legal.
Distributors label synthetic marijuana packages “not for human consumption” to try to get around a federal law making illegal a chemical substantially similar to an existing illegal drug if the chemical is intended for human consumption.
But everybody knows the fake marijuana is intended for human consumption, and it’s sold without age restrictions and billed as safe and legal alternative to marijuana. And drug tests have not been developed to detect most of the chemicals used in synthetic marijuana.
Synthetic Pot Use Widespread Among Youths
Parents and youth service providers should be mindful of the prevalence of use of synthetic marijuana among youth, and educate themselves about its dangers.
A recent survey cited by the Center for Substance Abuse Research found that synthetic marijuana was the third most-abused substance among high school students, behind alcohol and natural marijuana. The survey found 12 percent of high school students said in 2012 they had used synthetic marijuana within the past year.
The center’s Wish said parents need to talk to their kids about synthetic pot.
“They need to say … it comes in from other parts of the world, it’s created by chemists who are trying to avoid the law, and the chemicals they are putting on it are unknown because the government can’t even keep up with it so that when you take it, you really don’t know what you’re taking and some people get really ill from taking this,” Wish said. “That’s about what you can do is just put it out there and tell them, educate them about this.”
The American Association of Poison Control Centers, which reports 5,230 calls to poison control centers last year related to synthetic marijuana, says the fake pot can be extremely addictive and life-threatening.
Getting Help for Youths Using Synthetic Marijuana
Dr. Melinda Campopiano, the medical officer for the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, urges parents and youth service providers to seek treatment for kids using synthetic marijuana.
Campopiano says withdrawal after regular use can lead to feeling sick, tired, emotional and overly sensitive and can make it difficult to function.
She recommends that those seeking treatment for youths check with their insurance companies if they’re insured, visit SAMHSA’s Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator or call 800-662- 4357.
The Partnership at Drugfree.org provides information on prevention, intervention and treatment to help parents and caregivers deal with alcohol and drug abuse among teens and young adults. More information is available at the partnership’s website or by calling 855-378-4373.
And if you suspect someone has used synthetic marijuana, you get advice from your local poison control center, which can be reached be dialing 800-222-1222.
Being familiar with drug use trends helps parents and youth service providers decide what to do next rather than “just being completely shocked and blown away,” Campopiano said.
If a youth is not ready to stop using, Campopiano recommends educating him or her about the dangers of synthetic marijuana.
If the youth is not forthcoming about use and you suspect it, signs include the pungent smell of the fake pot, vomiting and a racing heart, she said.
Be aware that youths with a family history of addiction are at greater risk of addiction than others, as are those who have experienced trauma.
Campopiano also said mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety, are significant risk factors for addiction.
She said it's frustrating that youth can still buy synthetic marijuana.
“All we can do, though, is work hard to educate people about the consequences and effects of using these substances so that people understand that they’re legal but they’re not harmless,” Campopiano said.
“You know, it’s really tragic that this is just, oh, one more thing that kids can try out that might kill them or hurt them in addition to what’s already out there,” she said.