Concerns over the safety of synthetic marijuana have been raised once again in light of incidents where three U.S. teenagers ended up in the emergency room with altered mental states and elevated heart rates after smoking it.
In one case, a 16-year-old female refused to move or speak and was unresponsive when doctors rubbed her chest or pinched her, and had a pulse of 105 while lying down. (The normal pulse rate for a teenager is between 60-100 beats per minute.) In another, an 18-year-old male was brought into the ER and was aggressive, agitated, sweating profusely and had a pulse of 131. In the third case, a 16-year-old male seemed confused and had trouble speaking.
All three had been smoking synthetic pot.
Allen St. Pierre is the executive director of NORML, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for the repeal laws prohibiting marijuana. He said synthetic pot is much more potent than its natural counterpart.
"[Synthetic products] are one isolated part of the chemical structure of the cannabis plant," he said. "It has a much more potent and, in the case of human consumption up to this point, largely unknown effect."
St. Pierre said that Southern California's best dispensaries will have marijuana that's up to 27 percent THC – that's tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana. But smokers of synthetic weed, some popular brands of which are K2 and Spice, may be consuming between 75 and 80 percent THC.
"Synthetic THC products are so problematic because very often they're being used by young people who are not that well-informed about marijuana products, and they're using something that is by magnitudes more potent than even the best marijuana that they can get from a dispensary," he explained.
Synthetic pot is primarily used by people who either don't have access to natural marijuana or by people who have to take drug tests, since the synthetic drug isn't detected by drug tests. St. Pierre said NORML does not include synthetic marijuana in its legalization efforts.
"Synthetic analogs that are used principally to just get high and get around drug tests is not something NORML supports," he said. He likened the isolation of one chemical component of the weed to eating a Vitamin C tablet as opposed to eating the whole grapefruit or orange. Natural marijuana, he said, provides the smoker with the whole plant product, not just an active ingredient.
The Drug Enforcement Administration moved to make synthetic weed illegal last year, and has effectively done so, said St. Pierre. But he added that those laws only ban one very specific molecular form of the synthetic drug, and it's extremely easy for developers to simply change a single molecule and create a drug that's almost identical – except the new one is technically not illegal.
"It's really quite hard to ban," said St. Pierre, pointing out a person can still find synthetic marijuana in any number of gas stations of smoke shops.
A report by the L.A. County Department of Public Health released in 2010 makes it clear that there's a lot of weed in Los Angeles. Between 2009 and 2010, 27.2 percent of 60,629 L.A. County residents admitted to publicly-funded treatment programs received treatment for marijuana – more than any other drug (including alcohol). In L.A. high schools, 37.6 percent of students admitted to having used marijuana, while 19.3 percent admitted to being current users. In terms of trafficking, the number of kilograms of pot that went through high-intensity areas in L.A., Orange and Riverside and San Bernadino counties shot up from 72,191 kilograms in 2005 to 202,991 kilograms in 2008.
But police officers in South Bureau divisions of the LAPD say that while weed is certainly ubiquitous in the South L.A. area – "Everybody smokes it," one said matter-of-factly – synthetic weed isn't exactly common. A few officers said they had come across it but that most of the pot they encounter is natural.
John King, a lieutenant in the LAPD's Gang and Narcotics Division, also said the department as a whole hasn't "dealt with much synthetic marijuana."
He said when LAPD units do find it, it's usually in the smoke shops – or "head shops," which King said a colloquialism for places that sell smoking paraphernalia like bongs, hookahs and other items that are not, in and of themselves, illegal.
"Natural pot is much more of a problem," he said. "You've got it in these medical marijuana dispensaries which are operating the city illegally.
"We've heard of synthetic," he continued, "but it just hasn't reached that point yet where it's this huge epidemic, at least that I've seen."
Photo by Rusty Blazenhoff via Flickr Creative Commons.