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Synthetic Marijuana: Spice or The K2 Drug

Poison control centers have seen thousands of reports from people — mostly teens — who get sick from synthetic, smokable chemical products sold under a variety of names. These “k2 weed” products are an entirely new drug problem, with side effects that rival those of longstanding illicit drugs. If your teen has been using K2 to get high, you need to get them help.

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14 min read

What Is Synthetic Marijuana?

Synthetic marijuana (also known colloquially as “K2” and “spice”) is a term used to describe a new breed of drugs, marketed as things like “herbal incense” or “potpourri.” Despite labels like “not for human consumption” that are often displayed on packaging, the potential for the drug’s misuse is high. Spice is designed as an imitator product, rivaling both the appearance and the effects of marijuana when it’s smoked — and has struck a chord with curious American teens looking for a buzz. In 2012, more than 11% of 12th graders and 4% of 8th graders said they smoked this “fake weed” at some point that year.

Spice is typically just shredded plant material, sprayed with a mixture of manmade chemicals. They’re also sold as a liquid in some cases, designed for use in e-cigarettes or other forms of vaporizers. The scientific term for these chemicals is “synthetic cannabinoids,” as cannabinoids are the mind-altering chemicals produced naturally in marijuana plants.

Synthetic marijuana is among the most troubling drugs for teens, even though it’s only been around for a little over a decade. It’s easy to buy spice, but it’s impossible to know what the exact contents are and how your body will respond to them. By design, synthetic weed will not appear in most drug tests. In 2011, nearly 30,000 ER visits in the U.S. were related to spice. Another 7,500 visits involved kids aged 12–17. In about two-thirds of these cases, synthetic cannabinoids were the only substances found in the systems of the patients.

History of Synthetic Marijuana

“These synthetic cannabinoids were originally designed as research chemicals for use in the laboratory, trying to identify cannabinoid receptors in the brain,”

Donna BushForensic toxicology specialist with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Spice first appeared in the U.K. around 2004, and made its way to the U.S. in 2008. It was first identified in products labeled “Spice Diamond,” “Spice Gold” and “Spice Arctic Synergy.” They come in small, colorful and discreet packages, initially sold at tobacco shops and pipe shops (commonly known as “head shops”), but eventually made their way into corner stores and gas stations. Word traveled fast that teenagers were buying up spice products to get high, and dozens of small companies recreated the formula and sold synthetic cannabinoids under different names. Eventually, hundreds of varieties of the drug could be found, both in stores and through online retailers.

“You never know what you’re getting. Every little bag, every little package can be different because there’s no standardization, there’s no quality control. These are all products made on the fly,” “They are marketed in a way that frankly does not portray how dangerous they are.”

As reports of adverse effects became commonplace, treatment for spice abuse grew into a hot topic for parents and teachers. In 2015, talk show personality Wendy Williams’ son was taken to rehab when Williams and her husband discovered he was addicted to synthetic marijuana. Fortunately, he was able to get clean, but hundreds of kids are not so lucky.

“My kid could have been dead,” said Williams, during a taping of her show. “To the parents and guardians who are watching right now, just talk to your kids.”

Awareness of synthetic marijuana continues to spread — just not fast enough to stop the problem. In the first half of 2015, there was a 229% increase in calls to poison control centers involving the drug. Between 2014 and the 2015, the number of deaths in the U.S. related to synthetic marijuana tripled.

Synthetic Marijuana vs. Real Marijuana

Among high schoolers, synthetic marijuana is now the most commonly abused (i.e. misused) illicit drug behind natural marijuana. Treatment for synthetic weed requires an entirely different approach though, as these products have absolutely nothing in common with marijuana itself. Despite being marketed towards kids as a comparable (and legal) alternative to pot, the fact is that they’re often far more dangerous.

Doctors thoroughly understand the science of weed addiction and how it impacts the user’s mind and body. But the chemicals in spice products change so often, and cause such a wide range of extreme reactions, that many experts consider it a bigger threat than legitimate marijuana at this point.

Popular Street Names

Spice and K2 are perhaps the most common street names for synthetic marijuana, as these were two of the first big names under which it was sold. If your teen looks for k2 weed at a convenience store, they may ask if they have “spice” or “K2.” And in news stories related to these products, they’re often referred to as the “K2 drug,” the “K3 drug” or simply “Spice” — with or without a capital “S.”

With that being said, these drugs go by a plethora of names, especially as more and more companies attempt to cash in on this growing trend. Some of the most popular brand names for synthetic cannabinoids include:

  • Bliss
  • Black Mamba
  • Yucatan Fire
  • Bombay Blue
  • Solar Flare
  • Cloud9
  • Bizarro
  • Code Black
  • Genie
  • Zohai
  • Skunk
  • Funky Monkey
  • Joker
  • Kush
  • Kronic
  • Mr. Happy
  • Phantom Wicked Dreams
  • Scooby Snacks
  • Lava
  • Smoke

Where Can You Buy Spice?

Student giving k2 joint

If you walk into a local gas station or convenience store, you may see “herbal incense” or “herbal supplements” either in a display at the counter or mixed in with other products in one of the aisles. While some spice products have an age limit of 18, stores often overlook the age restriction. A number of head shops also sell synthetic marijuana. If your teen is unable to walk into these places personally — many head shops are 18-and-up — they can easily pay an older friend to buy it for them.

“Anyone who has Internet access can order these substances,”

Carol FalkowskiCEO of Drug Abuse Dialogues

Buying spice online is becoming the preferred method for teens. If your son or daughter has Internet access, they can track down online retailers of synthetic marijuana — there are many, many retailers. By simply typing in “buy spice online” or “herbal incense” into a search engine, you can see the extent of the problem. It’s not a bad idea to edit your computer’s parental controls to block websites with words such as “spice,” “k2” or “incense.” You should also monitor your teen’s browsing history on their smartphone.

“There is no quality control. There is no truth in labeling. There is no standard dosage amount.”

Is Spice Legal?

One of the big selling points upon the arrival of Spice and K2 was that it was a “legal high.” There were no preexisting laws against synthetic cannabinoids, and stores were able to sell them over-the-counter without any sort of license. As more and more kids wound up in the hospital though, the legality of these products was put under a spotlight.

President Obama signed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act in 2012, which reclassified 26 types of synthetic cannabinoids as schedule I drugs. From that point forward, anyone caught selling or in possession of these particular products was liable for prosecution.

Unfortunately, this has not stopped the k2 weed epidemic. The companies that market spice products continue to develop them with new chemicals, and there are more types of synthetic marijuana on the market than ever before. The DEA has worked hard to identify and stop production of these products as they hit the shelves, but with so many products out there, it’s been extremely difficult to keep up. So while Spice, K2 and several other of the original k2 weed brands have seen a decline, dozens of their successors continue to sidestep the law and sell these dangerous products to young and old buyers alike.

How Is Synthetic Marijuana Used?

teenagers smoking k2

Synthetic marijuana is designed to imitate marijuana in its feel and appearance, and is mostly used in the same ways. Teens will pour the spice leaves into a pipe, bong or other smoking apparatus, hold a flame to the drug, and then breathe in the smoke.

“Every time I drive, I see another store,”

Lt. Ozzy TiangaBroward County Sheriff's Office in South Florida

Just as with actual marijuana, though, vaporizers and electronic cigarettes are an increasingly popular method for fake weed use. The same chemicals used to spray the leaves of herbal incense products are now packaged and sold as “liquid incense” as well.

“These individuals can smoke it right in front of you. And many of times these vapes have no scent, or because they are a chemical substance the scent can be changed. It could be a fruit smell. It could be no smell at all,”

These liquids are heated and inhaled through these e-cigarettes or “vape pens” — in a process called “vaping” — and this allows users to get high with no resulting smoke or odor. Teens can use vape pens in school bathrooms and parking lots now with less risk of being caught. Vaping devices are available online and in stores, and the number of retailers carrying the products has increased dramatically in the last few years.

“An e-cigarette is not your traditional drug paraphernalia. So it’s much more difficult for a law enforcement officer to establish probable cause to determine this is actually a device intended for the consumption of narcotics.”

Signs of Synthetic Marijuana Abuse

Nw that you know how this drug is used, you may discover physical evidence of a spice habit. If you happen upon any of these in your teen’s room, school supplies, laundry, car, or elsewhere around the house, it can be a clear indication that they are using. These can include:

  • Spice packages (small, plastic wrapping with labels you’ve never seen before)
  • Small plastic containers or vials
  • Pungent smell on their breath or clothes
  • Pipes, bongs or other smoking devices
  • Electronic cigarettes
  • Lighters

What Are the Effects of Spice Abuse?

Due to the unpredictable contents of synthetic marijuana, the side effects vary from case to case. Because of this, researchers are unable to pin down the effects of spice like they’ve been able to do with real marijuana or other illicit drugs. The results can range from mild to very severe. In extreme cases, the effects from smoking spice are more violent and debilitating than even the most lambasted street drugs.

Effects on the Brain

Several chemicals originally found in spice target the same nerve cell receptors as THC, the primary psychoactive chemical in marijuana. But they attach to these receptors more strongly, leading to a more intense and longer-lasting effect than smoking weed. These chemicals are absorbed into the brain almost instantly after being smoked, and depending on the intensity of the chemical and the user’s mental state, the brain will react in any number of undesirable ways.

The psychological side effects users have experienced from spice include:

  • Panic attacks
  • Paranoia
  • Confusion
  • Agitation
  • Hallucinations
  • Psychosis
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Mental illness

Many users have had complete psychotic breakdowns from one single use of synthetic marijuana. Stories include seeing demons, hearing voices and lashing out uncontrollably at others.

“I had a normal child on a Thursday and a not normal child on a Friday,” “My son came home from school, smoked K2, and took a loaded gun into the woods.”

Robin SmithMother of a 15-year-old in Maryland.

Because they don’t appear on drug tests, spice products have become popular with athletes as well. But these stars are not immune to the frightening psychological side effects of spice abuse. In late 2015, major NFL draft prospect Robert Nkemdiche fell out of a hotel window due to a paranoid reaction from the drug. In early 2016, Derrick Coleman of the Seattle Seahawks was involved in a car accident after smoking spice. Marcell Dareus and Kellen Winslow, two other NFL stars, were both arrested on separate occasions for possession of synthetic marijuana.

We can’t know exactly how these chemicals affect the brain, because we can’t know precisely what chemicals are in each dose of synthetic marijuana. Many of these chemical compounds have never been seen before, let alone studied. This volatile nature makes synthetic marijuana a far more urgent issue than most people realize.

Effects on the Body

Once synthetic cannabinoids enter the body, the toxic effects can appear immediately. Used over time — especially in tandem with illicit drug use (including marijuana itself) or teen alcohol abuse — a user is at risk for serious and permanent physical damage. The potency of certain spice products is 100 times greater than that of real marijuana. So if a teenager takes even one hit in an effort to recreate the feeling of “getting high” on pot, they leave their body vulnerable to an immensely adverse reaction. Additionally, the body’s defenses are unable to detect, block or deactivate the chemicals in spice — even if they’re able to cope with the chemicals in regular marijuana.

Physical side effects of spice abuse include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Hyperactivity
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Kidney damage
  • Chest pain
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Heart problems
  • Stroke
  • Overdose
  • Death

Over the years, many young people have died from just one use of synthetic marijuana. It’s easy to be fooled by the colorful packaging and the idea that “everybody’s doing it” — especially considering that millions of kids are using k2 weed to get high. If your teen knew how risky it was to smoke spice, they may have felt they could avoid the serious risks attached to the drug. The truth is that many can’t.

Is Synthetic Marijuana Addictive?

Extremely. Doctors compare the addictiveness of synthetic cannabinoids to that of meth and crack cocaine. Users will quickly develop a tolerance, meaning they need more of the drug to get high, and before long will smoke outrageous amounts. In the case of teen addicts, this addiction will often lead them to steal money from family or friends to feed their habit. Treatment for spice addiction may involve a torturous withdrawal period (i.e. sweating, restlessness, shooting pain, intense cravings) as the body and mind let go of the chemicals that they’ve grown accustomed to.

Does Your Child Need Addiction Treatment?

If you find that your child has used a drug like synthetic marijuana, don’t allow it to continue — each day that they use any drug is a roll of the dice. Reach out for help immediately and get your teen’s life back on track.

Hopefully your teen’s substance habit has not progressed past experimentation and into addiction. However, only a professional can determine the level of severity of your child’s drug abuse. Make an appointment to speak with your family doctor or your teen’s school guidance counselor, who can help figure out what’s going on and what needs to happen in order to bring your child back to health.

We at TeenRehabCenter.org are also available to discuss the situation with you in confidence. Our experienced treatment advisors are able to listen to you and help you identify any next steps. Call us for advice, a free list of vetted treatment centers, or just for a listening ear. We’ve seen how devastating addiction can be, and we want to help families like yours get through it. All of our help is free and confidential.

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