The Very Real Dangers of Synthetic Marijuana

On the night of December 7, 2012, Emily Bauer, a straight A and B sophomore at Cy-Fair High school in Cypress, Texas, complained of another migraine. (The painful headaches had been plaguing her for a couple of weeks, her family told CNN.com.) So she lay down to take a nap at her house, hoping to sleep off the pain.

Little did Emily know at the time, she wouldn’t wake up refreshed. She would wake up a completely different person.

That night—and every day prior for the past two weeks—Emily had smoked something called “Spice,” which is a synthetic form of marijuana that she and her friends had purchased from a local gas station. Her family now believes that using this drug is what caused her to awaken from her nap in a psychotic state, and to eventually suffer the series of severe strokes that destroyed a large portion of her brain.

You can read all about Emily’s devastating story (and triumphant return to school last week) at CNN.com, but we’d also like to draw your attention to this story: Right around when Emily—now paralyzed—was wheeling her wheelchair down the hallways of her high school for the first time, Colorado health authorities announced that they were teaming up with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate three deaths (and as many as 75 other hospitalized illnesses) that may be linked to synthetic marijuana use. It is believed that 1 in 5 of those cases were teenagers.

So what is synthetic marijuana, and why is it so dangerous? We put together this little primer for you:

What is synthetic marijuana?
Known as “Spice, “K2,” or “Genie,” these drugs are usually pieces of dried herb that are sprayed with synthetic chemicals. They’re meant to mimic the high produced by marijuana—but without leaving a trace of THC in typical urine-sample drug tests.

Why are so many teens using it?
John Scherbenske, a Drug Enforcement Administration official who oversees its Synthetic Drugs and Chemicals division, told CNN that 12- to 17-year-olds are synthetic drugs’ biggest user population, probably "because they are easily accessible." Sold in convenience stores, smoke shops, or online, these drugs are marketed as legal household items, like incense or potpourri, and often come in colorful packages appealing to teens. (They’re usually similar in size and shape to a pouch of hot cocoa or a packet of Pop Rocks, with names like Mr. Smiley or Scooby Snax.) Also, as mentioned above, these synthetic drugs are not detectible in urine, which makes them extra alluring to teens trying to sidestep screening tests.

So wait … are these drugs legal?
Not really ... but it’s complicated. The federal government and at least 41 states have taken steps to outlaw “synthetic cannabinoids,” but here’s the problem: Manufacturers can tweak their chemical structure constantly to evade the laws that ban them. “So the drug becomes legal and we're at it again," James Capra, DEA chief of operations, said in comments at a June press conference reported by Time magazine. Another loophole: The "incense" or "potpourri" is often marked "not for human consumption."

What are the risks?
As manufacturers continuously substitute different chemicals to stay ahead of the law, there’s no telling what toxic mix you might get in a single package of Spice. But according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, even some of the more common chemical compounds known to be found in Spice might bind to brain receptors more strongly than marijuana's THC, producing an extra powerful and unpredictable effect. Spice abusers who have been taken to Poison Control Centers report symptoms that include rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion, and hallucinations. Spice can also raise blood pressure and cause reduced blood supply to the heart, and in a few cases it has been associated with heart attacks. (In Colorado, patients were brought to the emergency room with everything from agitation and delirium to seizures.)

How can you talk to teens about Spice—or drugs in general?
Most teens feel invincible, and it can be hard to get them to understand how a single instance of experimentation can turn tragic. So use the news to start a conversation. Mention the deaths in Colorado, and then share Emily’s story. Ask: Could you imagine waking up partially blind and paralyzed? What must it be like for Emily to have to relearn basic skills, like addition and subtraction? Do you think getting high those few times was really worth it for her in the long run? Seeing themselves in her shoes—even if only for a few seconds—can bring the abstract risks of dangerous drugs into a much sharper and deeper focus. Plus, it lets teens reach these conclusions on their own, without the type of preaching they typically tune out.

For more on substance abuse from the Teenbeing team, see also: Do You Know Molly?