Photo courtesy of the DEA
It’s not news that synthetic marijuana — sold under names like Spice, K2, Black Mamba and Crazy Clown — is a far cry from natural marijuana. The health dangers of this unpredictable, potent and easy-to-access drug are well-established: agitation and confusion; rapid heart rate; spike in high blood pressure; nausea and vomiting; intense hallucinations and psychotic episodes; and/or withdrawal and addiction symptoms, if used regularly.
Despite the growing awareness of the risks of synthetic pot, problems associated with the drug aren’t subsiding: They’re rising, in fact, to very alarming levels, according to the CDC. A new report from the agency found that calls to poison control centers around the U.S. for problems caused by synthetic marijuana spiked by more than 220% in 2014. Even more troublesome, there was a whopping 330% increase in calls from January 2015 to April 2015. Poison control centers in 48 states logged 3,572 calls related to synthetic marijuana use during that time — a huge jump from the 1,085 calls received during the same period in 2014.
Even more shocking, the CDC found a three-fold increase in deaths over the past year: 15 fatalities linked to synthetic marijuana were reported in 2015, compared to five in 2014. “If you have these products, you should throw them away,” urges Roy Law, PhD, an epidemiologist and lead researcher on the CDC report. “They are not safe or natural and using them can lead to severe health effects and even death.”
As Bad as Heroin and LSD
The risks of synthetic pot are what led the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to ban some strains of the product, adding them to the list of Schedule I Controlled Substances, which includes heroin and LSD. Synthetic marijuana is sold as an herbal mixture sprayed with chemicals that create mind-altering effects that can be very different from pot, and frequently, much stronger. Some manufacturers skirt the DEA ban by labeling products “herbal incense,” “potpourri” and even “not for human consumption.” In addition, drug makers have created a liquid form that can be added to e-cigarettes and vape pens.
The reasons behind this sudden rise in calls to poison centers aren’t clear, but Law hopes that continued education about the dangers of fake weed will change the misperception that these products are safe. In the meantime, he says, parents can do their part by staying aware of the dangers of synthetic marijuana and learning to recognize what it looks like.
Six Things Parents Should Know About Synthetic Marijuana
- Synthetic marijuana is the second-most popular illegal drug among American teenagers, and especially among teenage boys, according to National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
- Other names that synthetic marijuana goes by include Skunk, Moon Rocks, Fake Weed and Yucatan Fire. (Take our quiz “Do You Know Teen Drug Lingo?” to brush up on current jargon.)
- Fake weed does not smell like pot; instead, these potpourri-like substances come in a variety of scents, including blueberry, strawberry and spearmint. It may smell like your teen is burning incense, not smoking this version of pot.
- Fake weed is sold online and at head shops and at smoke shops, and is often marketed as safe and natural and labeled “not for human consumption.” Some products are sold as “incense,” but they more closely resemble potpourri.
- Like pot, synthetic marijuana is mainly smoked, but it can also be mixed with marijuana or made into an herbal infusion for drinking.
- Unlike THC (the psychoactive chemical compound in pot), the synthetic stuff is a mix of unpredictable chemicals that mimic the psychoactive effects of marijuana.
Photo courtesy of the Drug Enforcement Administration