Scary Spice

Synthetic marijuana was originally meant to mimic the high of marijuana, yet its effects aren’t just more dangerous—they’re wildly unpredictable.

Washington Post/Getty Images

Is that “legal high” really safe? We went inside the shadowy world of synthetic marijuana, where criminals are spraying toxic chemicals on dried plants—and tricking you into buying it. You won’t believe what could happen next. 

It played out like a scene from a horror movie.

Emily Bauer, then a 16-year-old high school sophomore, awoke from a Friday-afternoon nap and stumbled from her bedroom, violently thrashing and screaming.

As her confused family watched, they didn’t feel just shock and fear—they felt helpless. Emily had no idea where she was. And as she floundered around, slamming into the walls of their Texas home, she couldn’t communicate. Every word came out as gibberish. It was like Emily had gone to sleep the warm, outgoing, good student they all knew—and woken up a monster.

When an ambulance arrived, it took five grown men to restrain Emily. At the hospital, she tried to bite anyone who attempted to help her. Finally, to keep her safe, doctors took the extreme step of putting Emily into a medically induced coma.

And as Emily lay in her hospital bed, her mom, Tonya Bauer, sat in the waiting room, frantically texting her daughter’s friends. “I need to know everything she took tonight,” she pleaded. “Her life depends on it.”

Eventually, her phone buzzed with an answer—the answer she didn’t even know she should be looking for.

Emily had been smoking KLIMAX, a brand of synthetic marijuana. And she had purchased it from a gas station right near her house.

If you’ve never heard of KLIMAX, or Spice, K-2, Black Mamba, or any of the other brands of synthetic marijuana, for the most part that’s good news. But sometimes lack of knowledge can have deadly consequences. This human-made drug is a chemical produced in a laboratory. It is then sprayed onto a variety of dried herbs or plant material.

It was originally meant to mimic the high of marijuana, yet its effects aren’t just more dangerous—they’re wildly unpredictable. “Smoking synthetic marijuana is like playing Russian roulette,” says Dawn Dearden, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “You can have no idea what’s going to happen when it’s in your body.”

Fake Out

What’s even scarier is that authorities say this drug has been designed to fool you, as well as the people who try to regulate it. Since synthetic marijuana first popped up about five years ago, dealers have been selling it in colorful packaging, giving it cool names, flavoring it like candy, and marketing it as “natural” and “legal.” They’ve also sneakily marketed it as “not for human consumption” and advertised it as potpourri or incense. This gives gas stations and convenience stores a cover story so they can sell the lucrative—but dangerous—drug.

“A lot of kids think that because it comes in nice shiny packages and you can buy it in a store, it’s probably not as dangerous [as other drugs],” says Dearden.“Absolutely nothing could be further from the truth.”

Authorities say that some synthetic marijuana dealers are deliberately targeting kids. They package the drug to seem harmless, because they know that teenagers are more likely to use a drug that seems safe. They also know that the younger you are, the more likely you are to become addicted. Mix in some of the reasons young people use drugs in the first place—like boredom, loneliness, peer pressure, or depression—and teens become the perfect target for a new drug that nobody even knew to warn them about.

“Had Emily been better informed and known the horrific consequences,” says her mother, “she would have made another choice.”

Hanging On

Emily’s story is a tragic example of just how dangerous synthetic marijuana can be. At first, the doctors thought she would be fine once the drugs passed out of her system. But the next day, Emily’s temperature spiked, and she began having seizures. Brain scans revealed that nearly three quarters of her brain had been damaged.

Doctors believe the drug caused the blood vessels in her brain to narrow, triggering the strokes that injured her brain. The prognosis was grim. “They said she would never eat, talk, or see, and that she would not know if we were in the room with her,” remembers Emily’s stepfather, Tommy Bryant.

Emily’s family was encouraged to remove her from life support. Stunned, Bauer and Bryant began making arrangements to donate Emily’s organs and plan her memorial service.

Risky Business

Sadly, Emily’s story is not unique. Tens of thousands of people—many of them teens—have ended up in emergency rooms because of this drug. Vomiting, anxiety attacks, paranoia, and hallucinations are just a few symptoms doctors have seen. In the worst cases, like Emily’s, Spice or K-2 has caused seizures, kidney failure, strokes, and yes, even death.

So what makes synthetic marijuana so dangerous? Experts say that any attempt to consume it would be risky enough on its own, as these chemicals have never been tested on humans. But criminals’ greedy desire to make money sends these substances into treacherous—and new—territory.

As people started getting sick, drug-enforcement agencies worked furiously to identify—and ban—the chemicals in synthetic marijuana. Dealers and manufacturers, however, stayed one step ahead by making small changes to the recipe, quickly swapping out banned chemicals for new ones in an attempt to keep the drug at least quasi-legal.

“These things are changing every day, week, and month,” says Rusty Payne, a DEA spokesman. “We’ve seen between 200 and 300 new chemicals over the last three to five years.”

When a particularly potent or poisonous strain of synthetic marijuana hits the market, the result can feel like an epidemic. Near the end of August 2013, at hospitals in Denver and nearby counties in Colorado, hundreds of people showed up dangerously sick after smoking synthetic marijuana. All in all, three people died, and a quarter of those treated were teens.

Fighting Back

After Emily Bauer’s parents removed her from life support, they thought she would be one of the kids who didn’t make it. But amazingly, Emily survived.

Her life, however, will never be the same.

When Emily woke up from her coma, she was completely blind and paralyzed. In the year since her strokes, she has regained some of her eyesight, even though she remains legally blind. And while several surgeries on her legs have made her more mobile, she still needs the help of three people—and a walker—just to take a few steps forward.

Learning is difficult too. Since returning to high school last September, Emily has been escorted at all times by an aid, who reads and writes for her.

But there are signs of the old Emily. She still likes to change her hair color regularly and recently painted her room a loud and bright green. Being back in school is “awesome,” Emily says, but she desperately wants others to learn from her experience. “Kids need to listen and not do what I did,” she says. “You could end up in a wheelchair like me… or even dead.”  

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