They may be called “synthetic marijuana,” but the only thing synthetic cannabinoid products known by names such as “spice” and "K2" have with the active ingredients in real marijuana is that they bind to the same receptors in the brain.
There are hundreds – if not thousands – of synthetic chemicals that are sold as legal highs around the U.S. The chemicals are sprayed on plant material and marked “not for human consumption” and “herbal increase.” But those who sell them and those who buy them know what they are for.
But that’s about all they know about them.
“Regardless of what these people call it, the names you’re hearing, you do not know what the active drug is. Regardless of how the people behave after they take the drug, you do not know what the drug is,” said Dr. Jeffrey Moran, a toxicologist and director of environmental chemistry at the Arkansas Department of Health. Moran is the creator of the first test to identify synthetic cannabinoids in humans and has published several papers on synthetic cannabinoids.
“We just simply don’t know. If we’re all being honest, we have to recognize that,” he said. “We don’t know what the person smoked until we test. And if we don’t have the right test for it, you’ll never find it."
What is known is that these compounds are very, very dangerous. Some who have used them have experienced sudden death. Others have had psychotic episodes. Some people don’t have too many side effects at all, but become highly addicted.
“It’s poison. It’s toxic. It can kill you. It’s very potent, very dangerous,” said Moran. “A lot of these designer drugs can cause people to freak out, to do weird things, to self-mutilate."
A Florida man, Chase Sherman, died on Interstate 85 the night of Nov. 20, 2015, after having a psychotic episode allegedly brought on by smoking “spice.”
“He did spice and it messed his brain up,” Sherman’s mother, Mary Ann, told Coweta 911 operators.
Coweta County sheriff’s deputies responded and eventually got Sherman, who was in the back seat of a vehicle, under control. He was struck repeatedly with a Taser and held down in the back floorboard of a vehicle. Deputies then determined Sherman wasn’t breathing. He never recovered. The state medical examiner determined the death was caused by the electronic shock of the Taser, his position on the floorboard and the compression of his abdomen.
The Coweta County District Attorney’s office is still reviewing the incident to determine if any charges will be filed.
A Google News search for “synthetic marijuana” turns up thousands of hits, many about serious effects of the drug. The “Ban Spice” page on Facebook gathers news stories from around the country on the ravages of the drug.
In Pennsylvania, synthetic marijuana was found in the home of a woman who has been charged in the death of her 3-year-old daughter earlier this month.
According to WGAL news, the mother was found outside her home, naked, and hugging a tree. She told witnesses “I didn’t mean to do it. You understand I had to get the darkness out of her.”
Fayette County teen Chase Burnett, 16, was found dead in his home in 2012 after smoking synthetic cannabinoids. His death, in part, led to “Chase’s Law,” which outlawed certain formulations in Georgia.
The federal government has also made some synthetic cannabinoids illegal, but there are so many that manufacturers easily get around the prohibitions.
Marijuana contains many cannabinoid compounds, including THC and CBD. Like synthetic cannabinoids, they all bind to the cannabinoid receptors in the brain.
Many of the synthetic cannabinoids being sold are what are known as “abandoned drugs,” said Moran.
“These things often times come from legitimate research labs,” he said. Researchers will come up with a new compound and begin to study it. When they find out the compound is toxic, they abandon it. But labs and scientists tend to patent their new compounds before they test them. And the patents themselves give a lot of information about the compounds.
“So these rouge drug dealers know where to look to find pharmacologically active things that have never been tested in humans – that everybody recognizes as toxic, as poison, as something that can kill you,” Moran said. “They were never intended to be used by humans.” Companies take the chemicals, spray them on something green and leafy, put them in colorful packages and come up with clever names.
These new concoctions can't be compared to known drugs of abuse like marijuana, cocaine and heroin, or prescription drugs, Moran said. Those have been “around for many, many years. Scientists have studied them and we known a lot about them. We know the half life, we know how long it lives in the body, we know how to test for it.”
Moran has been seeing the ravages of synthetic cannabinoids since 2010.
In one case, a man was seen smoking a synthetic cannabinoid product. He started having seizures and then had a stroke and numerous other medical problems.
The man’s girlfriend was able to give Moran the actual product the man had been smoking. Moran tested it and found the compound XLR-11. They tested the man’s blood and urine, however, and found no traces of XLR-11. No one knows how long it takes the body to process the various products and how long they stay in the body. Some may be in the brain, but already out of the blood or urine, Moran said.
There have been some reports that synthetic cannabinoids can exacerbate underlying mental conditions, Moran said.
The mental effects can be permanent. “If you fry your brain, you fried your brain. Your brain is not going to regenerate,” Moran said.
Just because someone has smoked a synthetic cannabinoid product in the past with no major problems doesn’t mean major problems won’t appear. After all, you have no idea if you’re using the same drug.
A person could buy a product and a few days later buy the exact same brand at the same store and get something completely different, according to Moran.
“There are literally thousands of different things that are out there. It goes back to the lack of quality control,” Moran said. “These drug dealers don’t care what is in the package. They just want to sell the package."