Connor Eckhardt, a happy and healthy 19-year-old California teenager, was hanging out with friends last summer when they decided to smoke marijuana – not the kind known as “grass,” but a synthetic variety called “spice.” Connor inhaled only one “hit” and fell unconscious. Taken to a hospital in a coma, the teen was pronounced brain dead and taken off life support five days later.
While Connor’s tragic story illustrates one of the most severe reactions to synthetic marijuana, cases of serious health problems caused by spice are numerous – including heart attacks, seizures, abnormal heart rhythms, psychosis, memory problems, and hallucinations. Regular users can experience withdrawal and addiction symptoms, too.
According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC), reports of people falling ill from the harmful effects of synthetic marijuana began in 2009 and have increased dramatically ever since. Poison centers received 2,668 calls about the drug in 2013 and 3,679 in 2014.
The popularity of synthetic marijuana presents a public health danger, according to researchers from the University Of Colorado School of Medicine who documented an outbreak of illness caused by the illicit drug. Their report, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, revealed that over the course of just one month in the fall of 2013, 263 people showed up in emergency rooms in the metro Denver areas with similar symptoms – irregular heartbeats, seizures, and altered mental status. They all were found to have one thing in common: They had smoked synthetic marijuana before becoming sick. About 10 percent of the patients were so critically ill they were admitted to intensive care units and placed on ventilators.
Doctors have also found that ischemic strokes, which occur when an artery to the brain is blocked, may be a life-threatening hazard of smoking synthetic marijuana. Recently, University of South Florida neurologist W. Scott Burgin reported in the journal Neurology on 2 healthy, young siblings with normal hearts who both suddenly suffered acute strokes after smoking spice.
Burgin’s research paper points out that people who use synthetic marijuana are exposing their brains to unidentified chemicals that have not been tested on humans. "You don't know what you're getting when you smoke synthetic marijuana," said Burgin, who is director of the Comprehensive Stroke Center at Tampa General Hospital. “It’s like the Wild West of pharmaceuticals, and you may be playing dangerously with your brain and your health."
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains that spice refers to not a single drug but a wide variety of herbal mixtures sold under names such as K2, Yucatan Fire, Skunk, Moon Rocks, and others. Whatever the label, they are falsely hyped as "safe," legal alternatives to marijuana.
They all contain dried, shredded plant material, often resembling lawn clippings, that has been sprayed or soaked with various synthetic compounds mimicking cannabinoids (the mind altering ingredient in marijuana). However, spice tends to be far more potent than conventional marijuana because the psychoactive chemicals in the synthetic version bind more completely to the receptors in the brain for cannabinoids – making their impact on the body unpredictable and potentially dangerous.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has designated five active chemicals most frequently found in spice as Schedule I controlled substances – which means it is illegal to sell, buy, or possess them. However, manufacturers of synthetic marijuana have managed to frequently evade these restrictions by substituting different chemicals in their drug mixtures. The DEA is monitoring the situation and the need to update the list of banned cannabinoids.
Meanwhile, the drug known as spice is still often sold (often falsely labeled “incense” and packaged to look like potpourri) in so-called head shops, gas stations, and online. The primary users of synthetic marijuana are young people who may believe it is harmless because the drug is labeled as “natural,” according to the NIDA. Statistics show spice is the most popular illicit drug among U.S. high school seniors, second only to marijuana.
Another reason for the drug’s popularity: Standard drug tests don’t easily detect the chemicals used in spice. That could explain why active-duty Army personnel may be twice as likely to use synthetic marijuana as regular marijuana, according to a report by researchers from the University of Washington (UW).
A confidential poll of soldiers who were concerned about their drug use revealed that a majority felt using synthetic marijuana resulted in their failing to meet obligations, such as being late for work, doing their jobs poorly, or not handling home and child care responsibilities well.
The UW research also found evidence that synthetic marijuana is addictive. The soldiers in the study admitted they increasingly needed more and more spice to get the same effect, a hallmark of drug dependency. What’s more, over 75 percent reported they used synthetic marijuana far longer than they meant to – for example, instead of taking a few puffs after work, they found themselves smoking it for hours.
The use of spice does not appear to be slowing down any time soon. In fact, medical toxicologist Andrew Monte, an assistant professor in emergency medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, has warned that the U.S. should prepare for more outbreaks of illness and possible deaths from designer drugs, including synthetic marijuana.
"We need better testing to identify these substances, open communication with public health officials when outbreaks occur, and we need to make sure physicians ask patients the right questions about their drug use,” Monte said.
March 02, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN