n alarming trend is occurring across the United States: teenagers are experimenting with synthetic marijuana. They think synthetic cannabinoids are harmless drugs. In reality, these manmade drugs are one of the biggest dangers facing today’s generation of teens.
Synthetic marijuana is referred to by a variety of names including K2, Spice, Mojo, fake weed, Yucatan, Skunk and the list goes on and on from there. Regardless of what it is called, synthetic marijuana is among the top three drugs abused by 12th graders, according to the 2014 Monitoring the Future Survey. Parents and clinicians need to know why teens are abusing synthetic cannabinoids, the harmful effects and what’s being done to prevent people from abusing them.
Why Teens Are Using Synthetic Marijuana
Synthetic drugs are easily accessible; they’re sold in small retail stores such as head shops, convenience stores, and gas stations. Teens can easily purchase designer drugs that are marketed as incense, potpourri and plant food. They are often labeled “not for human consumption” so they are considered “legal”. Although the government has banned several popular labels known to be synthetic marijuana, there’s always a new brand on the shelves, often within a few weeks if not days.
What’s more, if teens cannot find designer drugs in retail shops, they can acquire them at music festivals and on the internet. Since the ‘60s and ‘70s, music festivals have always been a cornucopia of illicit drugs, but drug use at today’s music festivals is much more deadly. Many teens attend music festivals for the thrill of experimenting with new designer drugs. Unfortunately, teens often have blind confidence and trust in the type of drugs they consume; it often turns out to be a more dangerous drug they had no idea they were taking.
Many savvy teenagers turn to the “darknet” or “dark web” to purchase drugs. They gain access through software programs that create an anonymous “tor” browser website, sort of like a Google for the black market. These hidden pages can mask the users IP address as anonymous and the user can communicate through hidden chatrooms and “wikis”. When teenagers purchase these drugs, they often have no idea what kind of reactions will occur.
The Effects of Synthetic Marijuana
The chemical makeup of synthetic marijuana causes it to have different side effects than regular marijuana. In fact, depending on the chemical structure, the potency in synthetic marijuana can be 100 times greater than marijuana. With this type of potency, it’s not surprising that synthetic marijuana can cause adverse and life-threatening side effects. Anxiety, vomiting, rapid heartbeat, tremors, kidney damage and seizures are among the side effects caused by synthetic marijuana.
Overdoses from synthetic marijuana have been reported throughout the country. Last year, Mojo, a synthetic cannabinoid, made from the compound MAB-CHMINACA, left more than 125 people sick in the Baton Rouge area.
New Hampshire also experienced an outbreak of synthetic marijuana overdoses in 2014. At least 41 residents overdosed on a brand of synthetic marijuana labeled “Smacked!” which prompted the state to issue a state of emergency.
Overdoses and adverse side effects from synthetic marijuana have sent thousands of people to the hospital. In 2011 alone, synthetic marijuana was linked to 28,531 emergency room visits, which was more than double the number of visits in 2010, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network.
Medical professionals are mainly seeing teenagers and young adults coming into the emergency room for synthetic marijuana- related issues. Over 7,800 patients treated in the emergency room for issues involving synthetic marijuana use were between the ages of 12-17; another 8,212 patients aged 18-20 were treated for synthetic marijuana-related issues.
It’s common for people to blame synthetic drug overdoses on other substances. However, in 2011, synthetic marijuana was the only substance involved in nearly two-thirds of synthetic marijuana- related emergency room visits for 12 to 20 year olds.
The effects of synthetic cannabinoids can linger long after an individual has taken them. These drugs can cause individuals who had no previous psychiatric history to have delusions and dysthymia for days, weeks and months after using them.
From time to time, synthetic marijuana use can turn deadly. Numerous deaths have been linked to these designer drugs. Tying these deaths to synthetic drug use is often difficult because the chemical compounds in designer drugs are constantly changing, which means that coroners may not be aware of the new chemical compounds when they are conducting the autopsy.
Addressing the Issue
While states are trying their best to ban synthetic drugs, it’s hard to catch up to the new drugs being created and distributed from China and India. The irony is that the banned substances just end up on the streets or on the internet. Another problem is timing. Rogue chemists from China and India can easily produce a drug within a few days, while it takes U.S. government agencies at least 5 months to first identify and then pass the law to ban that specific drug.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Due to the high rate of emergency visits and overdose deaths, scientists from all over the country are now collaborating with law enforcement agencies to try to control and limit the damage from synthetic drugs.
Since synthetic drugs arrived in this country approximately seven years ago, they have left nothing but a path of destruction.
Parents are seeking justice for the harm that their children have suffered from synthetic drug use. In the past few years, multiple lawsuits were filed against gas stations and convenience stores for contributing to the death of teens after they purchased the drugs from these outlets.
Parents are not the only ones filing lawsuits against these stores. In 2014, a business owner agreed to a $100,000 settlement with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office after selling consumers Spice products with deceptive labels. Many products that were sold in the Aurora store contained chemicals that are banned under state law.
Moving Forward While the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency
is doing everything in their power to combat rogue chemists who use teens as guinea pigs for their next drug, there will always be a threat of a new designer drug. The best thing for professionals to do in the field of substance abuse is to spread awareness to families, teens, and other professionals. It’s critical that parents have a discussion with their teen about what’s out there and the life-threatening effects of synthetic drugs. By addressing the accessibility of synthetic marijuana, discussing the effects, and taking preventative measures, the community can tackle this problem.