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The Dangers of K2 and Spice (Synthetic Marijuana)

Until this week, I thought K2 referred to the second highest mountain in the world. But after hearing the story of one of the students I work with, I learned a lot about this dangerous drug.

A student in my youth group smoked a cigarette that was lying around somewhere. That resulted in a trip to the ER with severe issues, like aggression, hallucinations, and an altered state in general (confusion, rapid heart beat, etc.). Days later, there are hours missing from this students’ memory.


This cigarette turned out to be laced with a drug called K2, also known under names as spice, fake weed, Yucatan Fire, Skunk, Moon Rocks, and others. The general label for this type of drug is synthetic marijuana and in 2012 it was the second most popular drug among high school seniors. One ‘selling point’ is that K2 is hard to detect with standard drug tests.


What makes spice so dangerous, is that it’s often advertised as ‘natural’, containing dried plant material. Producers promote it as an ‘exotic incense blend which releases a rich aroma not suitable for human consumption’ (meaning officially it’s sold as an incense, not something to smoke)—but of course the real goal is to smoke it. That’s because most mixes also contain synthetic cannabis components (hence the label synthetic marijuana), but most of the times, this component is not listed on the ingredients.

K2 was legally available until a few years ago, when the DEA labeled the five most used chemicals in this drug as illegal. Producers experiment with the exact mix of components to try and make it legal, but this only raises more health issues, as there’s no way of knowing what these mixes will do to your body.


Effects of K2 and Spice

So far, there have been no scientific studies of the effect of spice on the human brain, but the cannabis compounds act on the same cell receptors as THC, the primary psychoactive component of marijuana. Some of the compounds found in K2, however, bind more strongly to those receptors, which could lead to a much more powerful and unpredictable effect.

Because the chemical composition of many products sold as K2 is unknown and changes rapidly, it is likely that some varieties also contain substances that could cause dramatically different effects than the user might expect. One concern is that mixes may contain heavy metals, which are certainly harmful to users. The problem is that every time a component is banned, producers add another compound. This constantly changing composition makes drug tests hard, as well as matching the chemicals used with their side effects. And these side effects can be nasty and sometimes cause permanent damage.

My student’s reaction to spice is anything but an exception. Users report experiences similar to those produced by marijuana—elevated mood, relaxation, and altered perception—and in some cases the effects are even stronger than those of marijuana. Some users report psychotic effects like extreme anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations.

ER’s are flooded with people experiencing issues as a result of these drugs. Between June and August 2015, 2300 people visited an ER in the state of New York alone because of fake weed . Reported symptoms include rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion, and hallucinations. Spice can also raise blood pressure and cause reduced blood supply to the heart (myocardial ischemia), and in a few cases it has been associated with heart attacks. It’s also known to cause kidney problems and strokes. Regular users may experience withdrawal and addiction symptoms.

This incident has certainly made me more aware of what’s ‘out there’ and how important it is to stay in the know about stuff like this. I’ve learned a lot this week in doing some research, as you can tell from this post. As it turns out, some areas have reported a wave of overdoses on synthetic marijuana, so it’s definitely an issue. Let’s keep talking to our students about the dangers of drugs in an open and honest conversation.

Sources: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Scientific American November 2015 “Fake Weed, Real Crisis.”
Photo credit: The Morning Call
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