Sep 8, 2016 4:21 AM

Walking Dead: Scientists Explain What Synthetic Marijuana Is

Zombies. That is how residents of New York City describe the users of K2 (also known as spice or spike), an increasingly popular and extremely dangerous street drug on today's market.

Although this highly-addictive, poorly-studied substance was frequently mentioned in the U.S. media, the longstanding problem has turned into a public health crisis on July 12 when 33 people suspected of overdosing on K2 were hospitalized. People were found by police officers while suffering from altered mental states: some were unconscious or staggering around the streets of Brooklyn under the train tracks; others braced their arms on parked cars or toppled to the ground; a few of those impaired were found lying near a fire hydrant. For a couple of hours, Brooklyn looked like there were shootings of a film about a zombie apocalypse, and actors were extremely plausible at playing their parts.

Synthetic marijuana has long been available on the market, but last summer, the situation with K2 ceased to be a local problem turning into an issue that worried health and law enforcement officials around the country. According to the health department, in 2015, there were nearly 6,000 emergency room visits involving the drug in New York City. Moreover, two deaths were reported.

According to a 2014 survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), K2 was the second most popular illegal drug among teenagers and young adults. So, what is it and why is it so dangerous? Here are a few facts you need to know about synthetic marijuana.

What Is Synthetic Marijuana?

Synthetic cannabis refers to any synthetic cannabinoids or chemicals that mimic the effect of THC on the brain. It is a mixture of industrial chemicals sprayed on dried pieces of different plants to make it look like marijuana, wrapped in eye-catching colored packages, and sold under numerous brand names—K2, Spice, Blaze, Black Mamba, and a huge variety of other names.

A synthetic cannabinoid is often confused with a cannabis product, but it is not the same thing. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, synthetic weed affects the brain differently than the natural drug: it is much, much more powerful. After the drug binds to a receptor, it activates that receptor more efficiently that THC does. The effects may be unpredictable, from a nice long-lasting high (if low doses were consumed) to suppression of breathing, hallucination and paranoia, shaking and seizures, violent behavior, and even death. The bad outcomes are more common because the vast majority of those consuming “fake weed” usually have no idea what they are actually smoking. Another problem is that the combination of chemicals sprayed onto the plant material and the potency of the product change by the brand or even by the batch of the drug.

Where Did It Come From?

Synthetic marijuana has its origins in the early 1990s.

An organic chemistry professor at Clemson University named John W. Huffman began synthesizing cannabinoids for medical research purposes funded by the NIDA. He even found that one of the compounds he developed might help non-melanoma skin cancer and brain tumors in lab mice. So, he published his findings along with detailed instructions for manufacturing the medicine using commercially available materials.

In 2008, Huffman found out that some drug enthusiasts took the publication of Huffman’s work, manufactured a cannabinoid called JWH-018 in a forensic lab in Germany, and called it “spice.” And even the fact that the “JWH” class of compounds had never been tested on humans could not stop people from using it to get high. Moreover, drugs based on Huffman’s chemicals popped up in Europe and South Korea in 2004. The scientist’s publication turned into a recipe book for street drugs. Huffman’s response to that was: “Someone opened Pandora’s box.”

Synthetic compounds soon became dominant—they were easy and quick to make. There are only three starting materials and two steps to make this drug, Huffman explained, and in a few days, you could make 25 grams, which could be enough to make havoc.

Why Is It Popular?

First of all, it is cheap. A five-gram bag of spice costs nearly $10 in some local shops, but it is often sold on the streets for $1 for a “stick” or joint and $2 for a “freestyle” portion (when the drug is poured directly from the bag into the hand of the buyer). At the same time, the price for an ounce of marijuana may range from $200 to $400, depending on the state and place it is purchased. The low price makes the synthetic drug a №1 for poor people and children.

Secondly, it is very addictive. A study carried out by scientists at the School of Health Sciences at Waterford Institute of Technology described “the rapid development of tolerance, regular dependent use within short time frames, and acute withdrawal on cessation of use.” When attempting to reduce use, all participants of the study described symptoms similar to what heroin users experience: loss of appetite, skin ablations, breathlessness, tooth decay, tremors, insomnia, chest pains, nausea, and cardiac conditions requiring medication.

Thirdly, it does not show up on standard drug tests. That makes spice popular among individuals who either are subject to drug tests for work or are on probation or parole.

Fourthly, it is almost ten times more potent than THC. One puff may either send a smoker to a wonderful day-long buzz or to a hospital bed, at best.

Is It Legal?

Synthetic weed is no longer legal in most countries around the world, including the United States.

In 2010, several states, including Ohio, California, Nebraska, New York, Illinois, and others, passed statewide bans on synthetic cannabis. On March 1, 2011, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classified five synthetic cannabis compounds as Schedule 1 narcotics. By definition, this class of drugs is considered dangerous, has no medical value, and has a high potential for abuse. Additionally, another 37 substances were temporarily placed on the Schedule 1 list.

The regulations helped decrease the availability and use but did not remove the drugs from the market completely The problem is that the DEA action only covered a small bunch of chemicals, leaving manufacturers to develop newer versions of the drugs to evade the prohibitions and moving the substances from the corner shops to the streets. Retailers also skirt the law by labeling the packages “not for human consumption.”

According to the DEA, the most prominent synthetic cannabinoid today is XLR-11, and it has little in common with its forebears. As drug manufacturers are coming up with new chemicals, users usually have no idea whether the drug they are smoking is the same as they bought last week and whether it is synthetic cannabis at all.

So far, there are at least 37 states banning the chemicals contained in synthetic cannabinoids.

Would Legalizing Marijuana Prevent Popularity of Synthetic Drugs?

Huffman, who opposes prohibition in general, believes that making marijuana legal would diminish the demand for chemical substances. He pointed out that, unlike its synthetic “counterpart,” the natural plant is safer, healthier, and non-addictive. It is also nearly impossible to overdose on marijuana.

The popularity of synthetic drugs is not a big problem in those states where marijuana is legal for recreational use, such as California or Colorado. People do not need to look for alternatives—they can simply go to the local dispensary and buy the good old cannabis instead of smoking or swallowing unknown chemicals.

On the other hand, there are still homeless and those people who want to avoid positive drug tests results. This is another reason why marijuana should be taxed and regulated rather than criminalized as it only drives users to dangerous alternatives like K2.

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