Synthetic marijuana awareness
Synthetic marijuana products are distributed worldwide under countless trade names and packaged in colorful wrappers to appeal to teens, young adults and first-time drug users. But its use can be life-threatening.
Just ask Emily Bauer of Cypress, Texas. The vibrant 16-year-old almost died after trying a synthetic marijuana product she purchased at a gas station.
Joy P. Alonzo, Pharm. D., assistant professor of pharmacy practice at Texas A&M Health Science Center (TAMHSC) Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy, addressed synthetic and designer drugs to more than 120 people on March 22 at the Bayview Behavioral Hospital gymnasium, 6629 Woodridge Road in Corpus Christi.
“There’s very little knowledge of these drugs in the medical community of what’s going on with the use of these drugs,” Alonzo said. “It won’t come up on a typical toxicology screen. It’s just so new that no one is used to seeing it.”
Alonzo discussed the need for more medical personnel to know the signs of synthetic marijuana use. The audience included nurses, physicians, psychologists, social workers, parole officers and other law enforcement officials, Naval personnel, and other allied health professionals.
Last year, Bayview Behavioral Hospital — the only area hospital that can serve children ages 4 to 18 for chemical dependency — saw 12 times as many synthetic marijuana cases as in 2011. But it’s not just children trying the drug, and health experts say it can be just as addictive and deadly as meth or even crack cocaine.
Bauer’s case made national headlines, as her family took her off life support just before her 17th birthday, and she survived with brain damage. Her first symptom was a severe migraine, which doctors learned was actually a series of small strokes. After three months in Houston hospitals and rehabilitation clinics, she finally returned home March 8.
The Bauer family posted on Facebook: “She’s moving her hands & arms more. Helping to do things for herself — she can brush her teeth & hair and feed herself when we hand her a spoonful of food.”
The family started a campaign to spread awareness of synthetic marijuana through a nonprofit organization, Synthetic Awareness For Emily (SAFE). Their goal with SAFE is to educate families, as well as teachers and doctors, about the dangers and warning signs of synthetic marijuana use. Thousands of people have posted stories of synthetic marijuana use and fears they have for their children and teens.
“These drugs were intended to study marijuana and were not tested in humans,” said Steven Peterson, Ph.D., associate dean of academic affairs and professor of pharmaceutical sciences at TAMHSC-Rangel College of Pharmacy. “Now by using these drugs, people are turning themselves into the test guinea pigs. If you use these, you are becoming the guinea pig.”
The origins of synthetic marijuana began with molecules developed by a researcher to study marijuana’s effects on the brain. Marijuana does not dissolve well and could not be studied in a lab easily, so John W. Huffman, Ph.D., an organic chemist at Clemson University, synthesized analogues and metabolites of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the principal active component of marijuana. JWH-018, named after the chemist, was one of these synthesized analogs, with research showing an affinity to the cannabinoid brain (CB1) receptor five times greater than that of THC.
In fact, the German pharmaceutical company THC Pharm found JWH-018 as one of the active components in at least three versions of the herbal blend “Spice,” which was sold as an incense in a number of countries around the world since 2002.
In 2011, almost one in every nine (11.4 percent) high school seniors reported using synthetic marijuana, known as “K2” or Spice, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It is now the second-most used illicit drug used among high school students.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in February 2013 that several young adults who smoked synthetic marijuana experienced nausea, vomiting, abdominal or back pain and acute kidney injury. Health officials said synthetic marijuana has been linked to kidney damage in some teens and young adults.
“We don’t know the mixture or the consistency of the synthetic drug,” said Peterson, who specializes in pharmacology and toxicology. “This was not tested on humans or animals. There was not much market demand for the synthetic as it was intended for testing.”
Sixteen people who smoked synthetic marijuana were hospitalized with kidney problems last year in six states, though it’s unknown if the drug was responsible. All recovered, but five of them needed dialysis.
Other adverse effects after synthetic marijuana use include agitation, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, racing heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, tremor, seizures, hallucinations and paranoid behavior.
“The inconsistent reaction in people is because of the inconsistency of the mixture and potency of the synthetic; there is no quality control,” Peterson said. “There is much more consistency in nicotine for cigarettes because it is monitored. You do not know what you are buying and using when you take synthetic marijuana.”
In addition, these known effects come from emergency rooms and poison control centers, which report the aftermath. It is not known for certain how widespread its use is in the U.S.
Since 2008, synthetic marijuana products have been sold in legal retail outlets as “herbal incense” and labeled “not for human consumption” to mask the intended purpose and avoid Food and Drug Administration regulatory oversight of the manufacturing process, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The Texas Department of State Health Services in April 2011 placed five synthetic cannabinoid substances in Schedule I of the Texas Schedules of Controlled Substances, making it illegal to manufacture, distribute, possess and sell the substances. Penalties for the manufacture, sale or possession of K2 are Class A or B misdemeanors.
Ricardo Torres, Kingsville chief of police, was made aware of the growing problem when colleagues in North Texas shared their information with him in 2010. The Kingsville Police Department started a campaign to rid the city of synthetic marijuana and salvia after the city passed an ordinance on Sept. 25, 2010.
“We seized more than $8,000 in Salvia, synthetic marijuana and other designer drugs,” Torres said. “We noticed it happening in North Texas in Allen, Texas, and started to act on avoiding it. You won’t see it selling at retail stores in the city. We saw that it was dangerous. We have seen some effects in area children.”
Just like any other city, Kingsville is still having a problem because it’s sold on the streets like other drugs.
“We probably pick up about four or five arrests on it each week,” Torres said.
Officials with the Corpus Christi Police Department led a concerted effort to remove the products from store shelves on Feb. 1, 2013, by raiding businesses that sold synthetic marijuana.
Lt. Bruce Ward, supervisor in the Corpus Christi Police Department narcotics division, said each time the city passed an ordinance, the drug would be changed. The new laws cover all adjustments to the product.
“It is so profitable for those who are selling it,” Ward said. “They are making 60 percent profit for the drug. For well over a year, it has been illegal, but the mechanisms weren’t in place to do something about it. The companies who produce it were manipulating it. We’ve seen an increase in patrol calls where kids are high or having seizures. We receive bulletins from across the state, and we were made aware that kids are having kidney failure.”
Corpus Christi officials seized more than 38 pounds of synthetic marijuana at eight businesses.
“The stores were open for business for two hours, and we confiscated $21,000 in cash,” Ward said.
The city also passed an ordinance to ban smoking pipes, and officials seized more than 2,000 pipes. Since the crackdown, Corpus Christi officers see five to 10 cases a day.
“We see the same brand now: KLIMAX, a product of Kush,” Ward said. “We are searching for who is selling that particular brand. We are seeing some problems in the schools.”
In fact, police officers recently were called to an alternative school in Corpus Christi where a student was hallucinating and laughing uncontrollably in the hallway of the school. The police found KLIMAX in the student’s pocket. The student was taken to the emergency room.
“Now that it is coming to light that it is dangerous to long-term health, in addition to it being illegal, there’s no better reason to not use it. We know now what it does to these kids,” Ward said.
Just ask Emily Bauer.