'Fake Marijuana' Users Showing Up in Emergency Rooms 11/11/10
THURSDAY, Nov. 11 --(HealthDay News) -- A form of synthetic
marijuana known as "K2" is sending young people to the hospital
with racing heart beats, extreme anxiety and hallucinations,
In recent months, physicians and toxicologists say more young
people have been showing up in emergency rooms after smoking
synthetic marijuana. Despite the side effects, K2 is legal in many
states, although many state legislators are rushing to pass
legislation banning it.
Since the start of 2010, the American Association of Poison
Control Centers has received nearly 2,000 reports of people who
became ill after smoking K2, compared to about a dozen in 2009.
Poison control officials described some of the symptoms as
K2 is often marketed as incense and sold in packets of herbs
laced with synthetic marijuana at "head shops," gas stations,
convenience stores and online for about $30 to $40 per three-gram
bag. The drug also goes by other names, including Spice, Spice
Gold, Spice Diamond, Yucatan Fire, Solar Flare, K2 Summit, Genie,
PEP Spice, and Fire n Ice, according to the U.S. Drug Intelligence
While people who smoke K2 think they're going to experience deep
relaxation and euphoria, those who end up in the hospital report
unpleasant experiences, said Dr. Anthony Scalzo, medical director
of the Missouri Poison Center and chief of toxicology at St. Louis
"The classic symptoms are agitation, anxiety, racing heart beat, elevated blood pressure," Scalzo said. "And some kids are having very negative psychotropic experiences. One said, 'I felt like I went down to hell'."
In some cases, the drug also causes vomiting, tremors and
seizures, according to federal drug abuse agencies.
Scalzo was the first to sound the alarm about K2 earlier this
year after seeing a couple of dozen of reports of young people
treated at emergency rooms who said they'd smoked K2.
The drug, also sold under the name Happy Shaman Herbs, Smoke,
Skunk and Zohai, among others, was developed for study purposes in
the mid-'90s in the lab of John Huffman, a Clemson University
chemist, who was conducting National Institute on Drug
Abuse-supported research on cannabinoids.
The chemical makeup of the drug, which he called JWH-018 and
JWH-073, was similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active
ingredient in marijuana, only considerably more potent.
While THC is a cannabinoid, it's one of many, Huffman said.
There are many other substances that interact with the cannabinoid
receptors in the brain and other organs, Huffman said.
"These receptors don't exist so that people can smoke marijuana and get high; they play a role in regulating appetite, nausea, mood, pain and inflammation. They may be involved in the development of conditions such as osteoporosis, liver disease and some kinds of cancer," Huffman said. "Synthetic cannabinoids can help us understand these interactions and ultimately this knowledge may contribute to the development of new therapies.
Huffman and his colleagues described JWH-018 and JWH-073 in
scientific literature. "Evidently some people have figured out how
to make them," Huffman said.
Huffman warned that the drugs were only meant to be used in the
lab and were not designed for use in people, Huffman said. "These
compounds were not meant for human consumption," Huffman said.
"Their effects in humans have not been studied and they could very
well have toxic effects. They absolutely should not be used as
And while the makers of K2 seem to have latched on to JWH-018,
many other labs have developed their own synthetic cannabinoids
that may also find their way into synthetic marijuana products,
The K2 craze caught on several years ago Europe, prompting
several countries to make synthetic cannabis products illegal.
In the United States, the Drug Enforcement Agency has listed K2
as a "drug or chemical of concern." But because it isn't officially
"scheduled," it remains legal under federal law, according to
Alarmed by the rise in popularity, several states have rushed to
outlaw K2. Earlier this year, Kansas became the first state to ban
K2. Other states that have outlawed it include Iowa, Missouri,
Arkansas, Kentucky, Alabama, Michigan and Illinois (where K2
remains legal until the end of the year). There are similar bills
pending in many other states, including Nebraska, North Dakota,
Ohio, New York, New Jersey and Louisiana.
Scalzo said the prohibitions don't come a moment too soon.
Little is known about the health effects of the drug. But he's
heard enough anecdotal reports about strange behavior -- ranging
from extreme agitation to withdrawal to a suicide after smoking K2
-- to be concerned.
"This chemical was not meant to be used in any kind of pharmaceutical manner," Scalzo said.
The U.S. National Institute of Drug Abuse has
more about synthetic THC.
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