The dangers of synthetic drugs

In New York, where 130 people have been hospitalized after smoking K2, agencies and lawmakers are looking to crack down.

Some people on the streets of New York recently appeared to overdose on opioid painkillers after their breathing slowed and they became lethargic.

Others appeared to be overdosing on crack, exhibiting agitated and violent behavior.

Experts at National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)however, say these zombie-like prostitutes were taking the same drug: K2, or synthetic marijuana.

In total, NIDA reported that 130 New Yorkers have been hospitalized after smoking the drug which can be purchased over-the-counter at less than reputable bodegas.

The following day, NYPD officers inspected five retail establishments suspected of selling K2, but none were found at the scene.

Representatives of the Doe Fund – a non-profit organization that helps people with histories of homelessness, incarceration and substance abuse – staged a protest around a grocery store suspected of being the main source of K2 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area in Brooklyn.

“What we see now with K2 is exactly what we saw with the crack epidemic in the 1980s,” George McDonald, founder and chairman of the Doe Fund, said in a statement.

Those cases were just a handful of the nearly 8,000 K2-related ER visits in New York City since 2015. It’s been illegal in the nation’s largest city since 2012.

Read more: Legal drugs you can buy online that are just as harmful as illegal drugs »

Unlike plant-derived marijuana, K2 has been linked to a few deaths.

According to a to study of 456 synthetic marijuana-related hospitalizations from 2010 to 2015 by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), three deaths were recorded during that time.

The first fatality was a 17-year-old boy who died of a heart attack after a single hit from K2.

The second was a man who died of “respiratory depression, agitation and delirium/toxic psychosis” after mixing synthetic cannabinoids and oxycodone.

The third man died of kidney failure after mixing a synthetic cannabinoid, bath salts and LSD.

The drug causing these medical issues – called K2, Spice, and a variety of different names – are synthetic cannabinoids. The most notable cannabinoid in marijuana is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which gives the plant its “high”.

Dr. Jordan Tishler, a Harvard-trained physician specializing in cannabis medicine, says K2 and similar drugs are not just one chemical, but a series of similar chemicals that can be made in the lab.

“The danger comes from two problems. First, the synthetic versions are over 100 times more potent than natural THC. This means they stimulate the brain both much more and much longer than cannabis,” Tishler, chief medical officer at Inhale MD Medical Consulting, told Healthline. “Secondly, these synthetic cannabinoids are not derived from the plant, so they do not contain balancing cannabinoids like CBD that blunt the effects of natural THC.”

What users of K2 may experience is the overstimulation of the brain’s endocannabinoid system, which is involved in many basic functions throughout our body.

Users are likely to experience “wild hallucinations, extreme paranoia that often leads to self-harm, and physiological disturbances such as low blood pressure and rapid heartbeat,” Tishler said.

“The short story here is that K2 is not cannabis and should not be confused with anything to do with natural cannabis consumption,” he said. “Cannabis is a safe and effective medicine for many, while these synthetic chemicals are extremely dangerous.”

Read more: A family’s personal loss to synthetic cannabinoids »

While synthetic marijuana may look like real marijuana, the type of cannabinoids used in K2 varies depending on its manufacturer, according to Sam Williamson of addictions counseling Realized Recovery in the UK.

“For me, the main danger with K2 is that many addicts I’ve met seem to view it as a lesser drug than marijuana,” he told Healthline. “It’s often the fault of the manufacturers, who often market K2 as a ‘safe’ alternative to marijuana. But it’s just as addictive and just as harmful.

Dr. Joseph Lee, medical director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Youth Continuum, said that while experts have known about synthetic drugs for some time, they continue to find new and different variations of the chemicals used in them.

Because of this, they attract different people for different reasons. Some don’t want their drug use to show up on the screens while others want a bigger and better high.

“Some are in more rural areas where other more commonly used substances aren’t as readily available, and some users are definitely younger and can’t access other substances,” he told Healthline. “So synthetic drug use is pretty common.”

Read more: If marijuana is medicine, why can’t we buy it in pharmacies? »

On July 17, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) introduced legislation to ban the chemicals used to make this so-called synthetic marijuana.

“We need a federal hammer to nail down these toxic concoctions of synthetic drugs before things get worse,” Schumer said in a statement.

This would include adding 22 synthetic substances to Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act where, ironically, authentic marijuana currently resides.

There are currently 15 synthetic cannabinoids classified as Schedule 1, but enforcement is difficult as new chemical compounds are introduced, according to NIDA.

“The early interdiction of these drugs will help the federal government step up its mole game so that we can help stem the tide of synthetic drug use here in New York and across the country,” Schumer said.

Others, however, are not sold on this plan.

Even legalizing traditional marijuana — as some would say would be a fair response to synthetic poisoning — wouldn’t solve the problem because people still want a bigger, better high, Lee argues.

“I think synthetic drugs are here to stay, no matter what happens to real marijuana. Synthetic marijuana is just one type of synthetic drug. There are so many forms and classes of compounds that it can be difficult to keep up to date, even for scientists and doctors,” he said.

Drug laws and policies, Lee says, are not enough to keep people safe. It comes with prevention, education and the right messages.

“Drug dialogues are incredibly complicated because so many people have different experiences and opinions about them,” he said. “In our polarized social arena, it’s become very difficult to have the kind of important nuanced conversations we need.”

Alvin J. Chase