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It is easy to purchase online and goes by many names, but synthetic cannabis has sent over 400 people to the hospital throughout eastern and southern U.S. New York, New Jersey, Alabama, Texas, Florida, Mississippi and Arizona have reported an increase in the number of hospitalizations and calls to emergency services by users of synthetic cannabis.
Poison helplines and centers across the country have reported a spike in phone calls in the past week alone. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office reported that 160 patients have been hospitalized in a little over a week. Officials in Alabama’s public health department said that 100 people have been admitted in hospitals due to the drug. A few deaths have also been reported, including two in Alabama and another one in Virginia recently.
Synthetic marijuana has been on the market since 2008 and is usually dry plant material which is sprayed with a chemical mixture to imitate the effects of pot. Users have reported a variety of reactions to the drug, from a marijuana-like high to agitation, vomiting, heart attack, seizures, extreme anxiety and other symptoms reported the federal National Institute on Drug Abuse. What makes the reactions and affects so diverse is that there is no way of knowing what the chemical spray contains.The recent spike in the deaths and hospitalization in the U.S. is unknown, but the following is a list of what is known about the drug.
- Synthetic cannabis can be brought at gas stations: The drug, which is often marketed under the name spice, K-2, fake weed, skunk, bliss and other names can be found at gas stations. It is packaged as incense or potpourri. They can go for as less as $20 and can also be found in convenience stores, on the street and in head shops. According to Syracuse.com, users can buy colorfully packed drugs from stores for $10.
- Many states have banned the drug: New York state banned the sale and possession of various chemicals used to produce the drug in 2012. While 26 variations of the drug have been banned by the Food and Drug Administration since 2010, the producers get around it by altering some chemical. They can bypass the ban by changing even a single molecule. Sometimes the packets are also sold with a “not for human consumption” label thus making it difficult to identify the drug.
- Synthetic cannabis does not show up in drug tests: Young people have reported using the drug as it does not show up in any drug tests and that is part of the charm for them. They can enjoy the same high as pot without the repercussions. The ever-changing nature of the drug also makes it hard to detect in regular tests.
- A synthetic cannabis overdose is completely different from a pot overdose: Patients admitted to hospitals have appeared too “sedated” to even breathe. Dr. Christine Stork at the Upstate University Hospital, told Syracuse.com that they have had to incubate patients who have struggled to breathe. Some patients have had to be restrained and given sedatives as they were too agitated. Pot users usually have a good trip and are mellow but synthetic cannabis users reflect amphetamine users. They are angry, sweaty, volatile and clinically they look different from pot users.
- The drug is produced by a company in China: Officials believe that a Chinese company produces the chemical spray and then ships it to the U.S. The packaging of the actual product can be done locally as the drug is sprayed over local plant material. According to a Vice documentary, the laboratories manufacturing the spray are also working for major pharmaceutical companies. They could be making a treatment for a disease today and synthetic cannabis tomorrow.
With the rising number of deaths and hospitalizations in the U.S., 43 states have taken steps to control the drug, but this has also not helped. In 2009, officials had reported two types of the drug and this number had increased to 51 in 2012. Jeff Lapoint, MD, pointed out to Forbes that it was making marijuana sale illegal that led to the rise of synthetic drugs. He suggested changing the law to target designer drugs, spreading the message about the ill-effects of synthetic cannabinoids and to continue the legalization discussion.
By Anugya Chitransh
Photo by Sean Nash – Creativecommons Flickr License