K2 Synthetic Weed Use Spiked Over Past Year, Says CDC

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 7/15/2016, 11:53 a.m.
The number of cases of poisoning from synthetic marijuana rose sharply in the past year, the Centers for Disease Control ...
Marijuana Allie Beckett

By Susan Scutti

CNN

(CNN) -- The number of cases of poisoning from synthetic marijuana rose sharply in the past year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found, while three deaths -- including that of a teenager -- were blamed on these drugs between 2010 and 2015.

All told, medical toxicologists in the United States reported 456 cases in five years of highly toxic effects caused by lab-produced cannabinoid drugs commonly referred to as "K2" or "spice." They are also known as "Black Mamba," "Bliss," "Bombay Blue," "Genie" and "Zohai."

"What struck us is over the last year we've seen a dramatic increase in synthetic cannabinoid poisonings," said Dr. Jeffrey Brent, one of the authors of Thursday's report published in the "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report."

Wednesday's news of 33 people collapsing on the streets of New York City, presumably from an overdose of K2, underlined the seriousness of these findings. The cases in Brooklyn are not counted in the new CDC report.

Serious consequences

Synthetic cannabinoids can be anywhere from two to 100 times more potent than THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, the researchers said. This general unpredictability is due to the unknown chemical composition of these drugs, which, the National Institute on Drug Abuse noted, may change from batch to batch.

Fifteen synthetic cannabinoids are classified as Schedule I controlled substances. The Drug Enforcement Administration's designation of Schedule I means the drugs have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. To hamper law enforcement, producers of "fake weed" continually change the chemical compound, thereby exploiting a legal loophole and drug test detection.

"So for example, if someone has a job where they get drug screened, they say to themselves, 'The Internet tells me if I take one of these synthetic cannabinoids, it won't be picked up on a drug screen,'" explained Brent. Unfortunately, they are right.

Users generally smoke these drugs, though some make tea. In the best of cases, the drugs create a high similar to smoking pot, with an elevated mood and altered perception. At times, though, the drugs cause a range of mild to severe neuropsychiatric, cardiovascular, renal and other effects, including possible psychosis, as NIDA and the researchers recounted. Currently, no specific antidotes exist so patients receive only standard supportive care and monitoring.

Another element of danger is introduced in the marketing of these drugs. Often billed as "natural," synthetic cannabinoids contain a mixture of herbs, spices or shredded plant material that looks like potpourri, though it's been sprayed with chemicals. Sometimes they come in liquid form. Sold in stores and online, the colored packages are bright and often adorned with cartoon characters. And most of these drugs are legal.

"They're legal and cheap and widely available," said Brent.

Synthetic cannabinoids can also have lasting harmful effects. The chemicals in them can damage the DNA within cells causing mutations, explained Brent and his co-authors. In the long term, the consequences of using these drugs may be cancer or other diseases.