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Synthetic Marijuana, or Fake Pot: What Is It, How Dangerous and Prevalent Is It?

| July 24, 2012

fake pot synthetic marijuana k2 background briefing

Nothing too natural about it.

Synthetic marijuana, or fake pot, is a chemical compound is sold legally under the guise of herbal incense, especially in smoke shops, convenience stores and gas stations, under such brand names as Spice, Galaxy Gold, Mr. Nice Guy, K-2, fake weed, Yukatan, Skunk, Moon Rocks, Demon, Genie. It looks like potpourri. The FBI puts its price at $20 to $50 for 3 grams.

The Palm Coast City Council is considering regulating or banning synthetic marijuana, and hoping to encourage other local governments to do likewise.

Although it is referred to as synthetic marijuana or fake pot, it has very little in common with actual marijuana, whose harmful effects are limited. Synthetic marijuana is a cocktail of often changing chemicals that have not been tested nor broadly studied for safe human use and that may have potentially more toxic and lethal effects than natural marijuana. Based on emergency room visits by users, the fake marijuana triggers a variety of reactions, including hallucinations, paranoia, elevated heart rate, seizures, vomiting, agitation and confusion, among other symptoms.

The federal National Institute on Drug Abuse cautions that so far, “there have been no scientific studies of Spice’s effects on the human brain.” But while the compounds in fake marijuana act on the same brain receptors as does the psychoactive component of marijuana, some of the compounds in the synthetic mixtures “bind more strongly to those receptors, which could lead to a much more powerful and unpredictable effect. Because the chemical composition of many products sold as Spice is unknown, it is likely that some varieties also contain substances that could cause dramatically different effects than the user might expect,” the institute warns.

“We still do not know all the ways Spice may affect human health or how toxic it may be, but one public health concern is that there may be harmful heavy metal residues in Spice mixtures. Without further analyses, it is difficult to determine whether this concern is justified,” the institute concludes.

Packages of fake marijuana usually warn that the herbs are not for human consumption. But they also make false claims—that the material is taken from natural psychoactive material. That’s not quite the case. The plants included in the packaging are window dressing, or carriers of the active chemical ingredients, which are not natural.

Three of the chemical compound originated in a lab at Clemson University, where chemist John Huffman developed K2 as a synthetic version of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, to replicate the narcotic effects of the plant—on animals. Huffman told the New York Times that the chemicals were not intended for human use, that the lab had developed them for research purposes only, and that “their effects in humans have not been studied and they could very well have toxic effects.”

“Synthetic cannabinoids are made in a lab that have one effect in common with marijuana but potentially many other different effects,” Robert Hoffman, director of New York’s Poison Control Center, told Metro, the news site. “They are sold as herbal products, giving users a perception of safety. But, in fact, they are toxic drugs sprayed on plant leaves.”

But Huffman’s formulas were published in scientific journals. Entrepreneurs have made use of them. The commercial use of fake marijuana first emerged in Europe in 2004 and has gained popularity in the United States since, drawing the attention of police, health departments and, of course, users. The products, the Drug Enforcement Administration claims, are marketed as “legal” alternatives to marijuana and packaged without information as to their health and safety risks.

The issue gained prominence when, in October 2011, Louisiana State University suspended cornerbacks Tyrann Mathieu—a 2011 finalist for the Heisman Trophy—and Tharold Simon and tailback Spencer Ware from the team after they tested positive for synthetic pot.

In March 2011, the DEA used its emergency authority to ban, for at least a year, five chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana products. Last March, the DEA proposed banning them permanently by placing them on the list of Schedule I controlled substance. The five chemicals don’t have recognizable names: JWH-018, JWH-200, JWH-073, CP-47,497 and cannabicyclohexanol. Several European countries have banned one or more of the compounds.

In late March 2012, the New York City and New York State health departments banned the sale of synthetic marijuana, which meant that all stores selling fake pot had to remove it from their shelves. Synthetic pot had been available in New York for about three years.


One of the potential problems with synthetic marijuana, an FBI bulletin notes, is the inability to identify the substances or recognize the immediate effects they may have on an individual. “One report suggested that the aroma of synthetic marijuana contains elements of mustard, tarragon, oregano, and pepper, with additional similarity to ‘stale lavender…like an antique shop,’” the bulletin states. “The same report also indicated that smoke from synthetic marijuana ‘smelled nothing like marijuana smoke.’ This type of information may aid in the identification of synthetic marijuana. With the recent ban of the chemicals associated with synthetic marijuana, law enforcement officers also should be trained to identify the substances and the dangers associated with them. Medical officials should share information with police officers, particularly school resource officers, in hopes that the spread of knowledge will aid in efforts aimed at prevention and treatment of abuse.”

The prevalence of synthetic pot may be overstated, at least for now. Evidence of its use, of its harmful use especially, is based only on anecdotal reports, not on hard, scientific examination of the drug. Its use in the general population may also be quite limited, at least for now.

 

The annual Monitoring the Future survey financed by the National Institutes of Health examines the use by middle and high school students of some 16 drugs and their variants, including inhalants. The survey did not start analyzing the uses of synthetic marijuana until 2011, and only for 12th graders—and only for past-year use, which is not comparable to past-month use. The survey found that 11.4 percent of 12th graders had used synthetic marijuana at least once in the previous 12 months. That compares to 36.4 percent for 12th graders using marijuana at least once in the previous 12 months, 15.2 percent using prescription drugs of any kind, 63.5 percent reporting drinking, and 42.2 percent reporting being drunk.

Perspective is important. While the 2011 survey found that there is curiosity about synthetic marijuana, the popularity of most other drugs has waned, especially among students wanting or willing to try something new.  There’s been declines in interest in crack, cocaine, over-the-counter cough and cold medicines, sedatives, tranquilizers and prescription drugs.

The report also found that the United States had the second-lowest proportion of students who used tobacco and alcohol compared to counterparts in 36 European countries. Some 12 percent of students had smoked at least once in the 30 days prior to the survey, and 27 percent had had an alcoholic drink. Of the 46,000 students surveyed nationwide, 18 percent of 8th, 10th and 12th graders reported using marijuana or hash at least once in the previous 30 days.  (The survey’s full results are available here.)

More students are using marijuana than smoking cigarettes, analysis believe, because they consider marijuana less harmful. American students reported the highest level of marijuana availability of all the countries and the lowest proportion of students associating great risk with its use.

An old story. Click on the image for larger view.

“One of the reasons that smoking and drinking rates among adolescents are so much lower here than in Europe is that both behaviors have been declining and have reached historically low levels in the U.S. over the 37-year life of the Monitoring the Future study,” Lloyd Johnston, the principal investigator of the surveys, said. “But even in the earlier years of the European surveys, drinking and smoking by American adolescents was quite low by comparison. “Use of illicit drugs is quite a different matter.”

It is also notable that synthetic marijuana may not be as recent a phenomenon as the 2000s. On Oct. 27, 1967, the New York Times ran a report, titled “Psychologist Fears Underworld Will Sell Synthetic Marijuana,” in which a National Institute of Mental Health psychologist warns of reports of synthetic marijuana on the streets. “I am just going on logic at this time,” he told the paper, “but I believe there is a very big potential market for synthetic marijuana, and big illegal markets attract big illegal operators.”

In that case, the synthetic marijuana was an odorless liquid that had been developed in Israel and tested at a public hospital in Lexington, Ky. Just as with the work Clemson’s Huffman conducted, those formulas were published in scientific journals. “The trouble with the stuff right now is that it is quite expensive to make,” Mitchell Balter, the psychologist, said at the time. “But I am sure with good old American ingenuity that the price can be sharply reduced.”

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19 Responses for “Synthetic Marijuana, or Fake Pot: What Is It, How Dangerous and Prevalent Is It?”

  1. Chris says:

    This stuff needs to be outlawed and the real marijuana legalized!!!! The goverment is losing out here!!!!

  2. Elder says:

    I can’t believe how this crap is being sold to are youth here in Palm Coast very secretly. I was in the BP gas station on Palm Harbor Pkwy ( the one that has the internet cafe next to it). Picking up some bread when I hear two teenage girls asking the cashier for 2 packs of K2. I saw the cashier look around to see if anyone was looking, then goes under the counter and pulls out all these packages of this crap. as soon as I walk up near the counter, the cashier grabs the packages and slides them back under the counter. The two teenage girls clam up and pretend their buying candy……Come on FCSO get some survelance in that place.

  3. tulip says:

    There was a story on the news today about 3 teens who had taken K2, broke into a 67 year old man’s house beat the crap out of him and stole stuff. The victim died today. Way too many guns, drugs and no ethics or morals, equals an ever increasing decline of a good and safe life. I shudder to think what things will be like 10-20 years from now with people. I don’t remember where it was but someone else was caught in a theater loaded with hidden guns.

  4. Jose says:

    Synthetic marijuana is God’s warning to you to legalize real marijuana or one of your loved ones is going to die.

  5. gerald says:

    I called the Sheriffs office complaining that they were selling fake pot and crack pipes in Flagler County and I never received a call back. That’s why I’m voting for John Pollenger for Flagler County Sheriff.

  6. chris says:

    Sad that someone is getting rich off this stuff. I swear I see what looks like Zinnia seeds in that stuff! (I grow my plants by seed) Scary that people can produce this crap & people will smoke it , snort it or sniff it. Well, I won’t hold my breath for anything to happen, because it will continue.

  7. Nat says:

    Just legalize weed seriously!! I actually prefer weed to alcohol. Even alcohol will make you do some crazy $h!t, NOT weed!! When will people and the government understand this and legalize it once and for all!!!!

  8. Yellowstone says:

    Legalize possession – crimanalize trafficing! Stop the prohibition era tactics and make it a profit source; like alcohol and cigarettes.

    It’s the American way!

  9. 4RYOUTH says:

    This is no laughing matter.
    Synthetic marijuana will destroy you physically and mentally, and the scope and duration of damage it will do continues to rise as new research develops. The name itself is deceiving, because it’s definitely not marijuana and it’s far more harmful and addictive. If you have any goals or aspirations and value the life you were given, don’t throw it all away with an addiction to poison sprayed on leaves in China and marketed in America. If you care about your friends and your family then don’t use it, because losing you to addiction will break their hearts and tear their lives apart. Synthetic marijuana will take you down a path of self-destruction and your life will continue on that downward spiral as your family tries desperately to hold on and keep you from slipping away. You will not be the person you were after using synthetic marijuana and the damage may be permanent. You are our future, our most precious commodity, and you are loved. Be smart and set the example for your friends and siblings. Don’t become another casualty of this horrific and disgraceful 18 billion dollar legal poison dealing industry that’s targeting our American youth.
    Read the research and educate yourself and others.
    http://www.schumer.senate.gov/record.cfm?id=337207&
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2012/03/22/synthetic-marijuana-on-the-rise-sending-kids-to-er/
    http://www.foxnews.com/health/2012/03/20/concern-growing-over-synthetic-marijuana/
    http://www.foxnews.com/world/2012/07/04/russia-fears-new-epidemic-synthetic-marijuana/
    http://www.vincecartersanctuary.org/blog/bid/48408/The-danger-in-Synthetic-Marijuana
    http://www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp/ondcp-fact-sheets/synthetic-drugs-k2-spice-bath-salts
    http://www.aapcc.org/dnn/Portals/0/ONDCP%20Meeting.pdf
    Get help if you’re addicted:
    http://www.vincecartersanctuary.org/blog/bid/48408/The-danger-in-Synthetic-Marijuana
    http://www.tothemaximus.org/
    http://www.211.org/

  10. Dan says:

    One sure fire way to know if a guy is full of bs , is when he has a link to fox news as a educational tool.

  11. jonathan says:

    why is it that alcohol is legal but this is banned now i quit smoking weed so i can not be molested by cops and now they want to ban this they just aint msking money cause its not taxed thats why they ban it there full of shit about the youth they sell cigs that proven to kill and alcohol but they want to mess with this all because they aint making money and maybe people will quit smoking cigs snd teplace it with this there is no study ive been smokiing it for a year and not once did i hallucinate and go all zombie so quit with the bs cause u just want us to do what you want and so what if some guy made money off this do did corporate cigs and alcohol

    • Anonymous says:

      Jonathan,
      Maybe you HAVE been smoking this crap for a year and maybe you HAVE NOT had hallucinations, anxiety, violent behaviors, mood swings, etc. but teenagers for the most part DO and my ex DID…..there is more bad than good in this home made poisonous replacement. I hope no children/teens witness you use this or even hear you speaking of “How cool it is” and “How people should be able to do what they wanna do” or how “its not going to hurt you cuz it dont hurt me” type of comments…….act responsively atleast if you are gonna continue to hurt yourself….

      • Anonymous says:

        they need to outlaw the shit it totaly screwed up my 20 year olds head up what the hell is wrong with the goverment. . its not safe

      • sheila says:

        I smoked this crap for 6 months then stopped. This crap is pure poison. It’s been 2 months and my.most is not right. I Got chest pains…..the circulation in my legs in terrible…my toes are almost purple. Will I EVER be ok again????

  12. anonymous says:

    i tried that shit 9 months ago, yea i got high for 1 week then thought i was haven a heart attack, scarded the hell out of me. didnt know the danger, friend said to try it . they need to stop and smoke really weed its god grown

  13. gregg says:

    I’ve seen it all, though i never had to bad of a reaction. i know it was hard on my kidneys. I have however seen some scary reactions in other people. just one incedent ill share, he took a couple hits and stoped breathing. He turned blue,litteraly, and had i not smacked him half to death i do believe he would have died end this shit!!!!

  14. just a person says:

    this stuff will put in the ER I had shortness of breathe,rapid heartbeat,addictive,I thought I was gonna die.Dehydration.It make you feel so good that ,that’s the only thing you think of.You sit in one spot for hours and don’t realize whole day then went by.I wish they would stop selling it and legalize weed.I started smoking it when I got caught with a blunt and had come up with all these court fees.

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