More than 10 percent of high school seniors recently admitted to using synthetic marijuana, also known by nicknames like Spice, K2, fake weed and Moon Rocks. And among that age group, the drug is second in popularity only to the old-fashioned pot.
But despite its easy accessibility and reputation as “natural,” Spice sends thousands of people to emergency rooms each year with side effects ranging from seizures to hallucinations to heart attacks.
In a new study, scientists have come closer to understanding why chemical versions of marijuana can be so toxic, with some evidence that some people may be more susceptible to those dangers than others.
The researchers have also developed a test to detect this new class of drugs in urine, which is an important step toward discouraging their use.
“You have individuals that may be on probation or workplace drug monitoring and they can migrate to these drugs because we don’t have tests for them,” said Jefferey Moran, a toxicologist and analytical chemist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock and the Arkansas Department of Health. “If they know a test is available, they may be encouraged not to take the drug.”
“I want people, kids especially, to understand that these things are not safe,” he added. “They are not marijuana. They’re toxic. They’re dangerous. They can kill you.”
Spice is just one of many emerging designer drugs that are made to mimic well established but harder-to-get substances. Some synthetic drugs act like stimulants, others like opiates, others like hallucinogens.
Synthetic marijuana works by stimulating the same receptors in the brain that react to THC, the active ingredient in cannabis. The intended result is to deliver a pot-like high.
But one difference between the nature-made and manmade versions, Moran said, is that the plant activates receptors only partially, while drugs like Spice fully stimulate receptors, making them far more potent.