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Synthetic cannabis

Posted on: July 15th, 2014
by Ryan McElroy, MD


One of the issues we’ve (and likely you’ve) heard about is “designer drugs.”  These are substances that can be abused like the more commonly infamous drugs of abuse: marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine, alcohol (yes, alcohol is a drug, too).  The difference is that designer drugs are typically chemically modified versions of the “old” drugs, such that they can technically avoid the legal issues.


Some of you may have heard of “bath salts.”  This is a designer drug whose chemical structure is based on a substance found in a specific plant, producing stimulant and hallucinogenic effects.   There was the “face eater” in Florida who was rumored to have been high on bath salts – however, this was proven to be a false rumor, as only marijuana was found in his toxicology report (they did check for bath salts!).  Despite this, this story highlights the dangers of these types of drugs – just like any other drug, the effects are unpredictable and can result in tragedy.


spice packagingA prevalent designer drug popular on middle and high school campuses, as well as colleges, is synthetic cannabis, also known as “K2,” “spice,” or “herbal incense.”  This drug is usually composed of harmless plant material packaged in an eye catching manner with the label “not for human consumption.”  However, the plant material is apparently being mixed with chemicals similar to synthetic cannabinoids that have been produced for research purposes in legitimate labs.  Underground labs can acquire the chemical “formula” for these legitimate compounds and produce similar compounds that are slightly altered and then applied to plant material. The effects of synthetic cannabinoids are far more potent than those experienced with naturally occurring cannabinoids in the marijuana plant.  They are also typically very short lived (usually 20-30 minutes), such that they can become quickly physically and psychologically addicting.  The usual effects are otherwise similar to cannabis; however, there have been reports of psychosis, schizophrenic episodes, and changes on EKGs (electrocardiograms – testing the electrical activity of the heart) that indicate strain on the heart and myocardial infarctions (“heart attacks”).  Underlying conditions such as anxiety and depression can be sharply worsened.  I have friends and colleagues who work at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas who have cared for young men and women who have been admitted to the hospital due to the effects of this drug.  I have personally visited gas stations and smoke shops (“head shops”) – where this stuff can be easily obtained – and asked employees what they have witnessed.  One employee told me that he has arrived for work and seen a line outside the door – people who are waiting to buy their next bag of “spice.” (They’re about $20-30 a piece.) An addictionologist colleage described spice as “the next big thing.  I hate it.”  I often ask my patients if they’ve heard of it – almost all of them say they have, whether it’s in the media, or they know or know of someone who has tried it.



Thankfully the DEA has classified the chemicals found in spice as schedule I controlled substances, such that possession of them is illegal.  The underground market continues to try and stay a step ahead by continuing to alter the drug’s chemical structure so that it is technically not covered under the list of banned substances.  It will continue to be a problem for the foreseeable future, just like any other drug.


I’m writing about this because this stuff is out there – it is prevalent, it is addictive, it is harmful, and it is potentially deadly.  Ask your kids about it – bring it up just like you would any other drug.  Ask if they know anyone whose heard about it or tried it.  Many become concerned that by encouraging kids not to try something, it will only increase their curiosity.  I don’t agree with this line of reasoning.  It is better to inform our kids of dangers such as these, so that if faced with a question from another kid or even offered to try it, they’ll be armed with the facts instead of rumors.  As parents we can only control so much, and one of the most important is the information we try to fill their heads with.


Ask your kids about this – you may plant the seed that will save their lives, or the life of someone else.


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