Kids are learning highs, lows of synthetic dope

What’s the real dope on the dope that ain’t real dope?

Chances are your kids know — or think they know — a lot about any num­ber of products that are mar­keted as herb­al in­cense but are smoked to get marijuana-like highs.

One in nine high school seni­ors has used the stuff, ac­cord­ing to a White House spokes­man.

But what is it and what does it look like?

It’s is vari­ous dried or­gan­ic mat­ter that is sprayed with chem­ic­als that mim­ic the ef­fects of marijuana.

The high isn’t the only at­trac­tion. As re­por­ted in the Jan. 25 edi­tion of the North­east Times, herb­al in­cense use is un­detect­able in drug tests, mak­ing it a hot item for any­one who might have to take those tests and beat them — re­cov­er­ing ad­dicts, pa­rolees, armed forces per­son­nel, po­lice of­ficers, fire fight­ers or job ap­plic­ants.

It would take a very soph­ist­ic­ated lab to spot the stuff, said Ra­fael La­maitre, dir­ect­or of com­mu­nic­a­tions for the White House Of­fice of Na­tion­al Drug Con­trol Policy.

But those labs do ex­ist and test for the sub­stances known as syn­thet­ic can­nabin­oids, said Dr. Mar­ilyn Huestis, chief of the Chem­istry and Drug Meta­bol­ism Sec­tion of the In­tra­mur­al Re­search Pro­gram at the Na­tion­al In­sti­tute on Drug Ab­use.

That test­ing, however, is not stand­ard­ized, she said.


Any­one can buy it on­line or at loc­al stores. A North­east Times re­port­er was able to make two such pur­chases at loc­al con­veni­ence stores.

The leg­al­ity of whatever is be­ing sold is a ques­tion from jur­is­dic­tion to jur­is­dic­tion. Some of the sub­stances used in herb­al in­cense products have been fed­er­ally banned or banned in Pennsylvania.

Big­ger ques­tions in­volve the health risks of smoking something that looks re­mark­ably like marijuana and that might con­tain chem­ic­als that sim­u­late the ef­fects of real marijuana.

Users don’t really know what they’re get­ting, Huestis said. Not only can in­gredi­ents and po­tency vary from product to product, but the same product might not even have the same in­gredi­ents from week to week, she said.

Syn­thet­ic marijuana’s health risks were in the pub­lic arena late last month with stor­ies that act­ress Demi Moore re­portedly was sickened by smoking it.

Al­leged use of syn­thet­ic pot by celebrit­ies might make for juicy gos­sip, but re­ports of the smoke’s ad­verse ef­fects are real hor­ror stor­ies.

Everything from hal­lu­cin­a­tions to anxi­ety at­tacks to naus­ea to vomit­ing, ra­cing hearts, el­ev­ated blood pres­sure and para­noid be­ha­vi­or has been re­por­ted, said La­maitre.

Like marijuana, er­satz grass af­fects the nor­mal func­tions of the body, in­clud­ing memory, the car­di­ovas­cu­lar sys­tem and the re­pro­duct­ive sys­tem, Huestis said.

There have been a lot of ad­mis­sions to emer­gency rooms of pa­tients who said they have used syn­thet­ic marijuana, Huestis said.

She re­called a case in Dal­las, Texas, in which three teens had heart at­tacks after us­ing syn­thet­ic pot.

Some, but not all, of the chem­ic­als used to man­u­fac­ture syn­thet­ic marijuana are much more po­tent than the real thing, she said.

Plenty is known about marijuana’s ef­fects, she said, but a lot more re­search needs to be done on syn­thet­ic pot.

A Holmes­burg wo­man last week said her 16-year-old son had many bad re­ac­tions.

“He was cry­ing and he had the shakes,” she said. “He told me, ‘I’ve been smoking some fake weed that’s mess­ing with my head,’” she said on Feb. 2.

The wo­man, whose name is be­ing with­held by the North­east Times, said one of her son’s friends “told me where to get it and what to ask for.”

She was able to buy the in­cense her son smoked at two dif­fer­ent North­east Phil­adelphia gas sta­tions. She paid $10 at each. Her re­ceipts at each lis­ted her pur­chases as gas­ol­ine.


Smoking the stuff known by such names as K2, Kush or Spice is a re­l­at­ively new phe­nomen­on, but La­maitre said fed­er­al of­fi­cials were shocked to find out last year how wide­spread it already is among the young.

Huestis said the chem­ic­als had been de­veloped to aid in drug re­search, but they star­ted be­ing no­ticed all over Europe, es­pe­cially Ger­many, in the early years of this cen­tury as young people star­ted go­ing to emer­gency rooms after they smoked the stuff.

It star­ted ap­pear­ing in the United States about three or four years ago, she said.

In a fed­er­al sur­vey of drug use among teens, 12th-graders were asked if they used syn­thet­ic marijuana.

In a Decem­ber speech about the 2011 Mon­it­or­ing the Fu­ture sur­vey, Gil Ker­likowske, the na­tion’s drug czar, an­nounced the un­ex­pec­ted an­swers to that ques­tion.

“For the first time, this sur­vey also re­veals shock­ing in­form­a­tion on the ex­tent to which teens are us­ing syn­thet­ic marijuana – mar­keted as K2 and Spice,” Ker­likowske said. “The sur­vey shows that one in nine 12th-graders in Amer­ica have used syn­thet­ic marijuana in the last year. Spice and K2 now rank as the second most fre­quently used il­leg­al drug among high school seni­ors, second only to marijuana.”

La­maitre, in an in­ter­view Feb. 1, said the an­nu­al na­tion­al sur­vey of teen drug use dates back to the 1970s, but it had not in­cluded a ques­tion about syn­thet­ic marijuana un­til 2011. The re­sponse to the ques­tion was troub­ling as well as sur­pris­ing be­cause smoking syn­thet­ic marijuana is so risky.


“These drugs are dan­ger­ous and can cause ser­i­ous harm,” Ker­likowske said dur­ing his speech at the Na­tion­al Press Club in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. “Pois­on con­trol cen­ter data across Amer­ica have shown a sub­stan­tial rise in the num­ber of calls from vic­tims suf­fer­ing ser­i­ous con­sequences from these syn­thet­ic drugs. And un­til re­cently these drugs were be­ing sold as leg­al al­tern­at­ives to marijuana in con­veni­ence stores.”

That’s why, he said, the U.S. Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion banned the sale of the chem­ic­als used to man­u­fac­ture K2 and Spice. Ker­likowske said he has put to­geth­er sev­er­al groups of pub­lic health and safety agen­cies from across the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to share data and co­ordin­ate a re­sponse to re­duce the drugs’threat. The U.S. House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives has passed le­gis­la­tion that would ban syn­thet­ic drugs; the bill’s now in the Sen­ate.

Be­sides tem­por­ar­ily ban­ning some of the chem­ic­als used in Spice and Kush, La­maitre said, the DEA is work­ing with Con­gress to make the ban per­man­ent. The DEA also is work­ing with states to take ac­tions against in­cense be­cause, in some cases, states can ban sub­stances faster than the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment can, he said.

But the biggest push is to make par­ents aware of syn­thet­ic marijuana’s health risks and its avail­ab­il­ity, and to talk to their chil­dren about it.

“I think par­ents need to be con­cerned about this be­cause there have been so many neg­at­ive re­sponses that don’t dis­ap­pear when the [drug’s] acute ef­fects are over,” Huestis said, ex­plain­ing that users can be­come de­pend­ent.

“The most cost-ef­fect­ive way to stop this is to have par­ents talk to their kids about it,” La­maitre said. “You can’t just spend your time ar­rest­ing out of a drug prob­lem.” ••

Re­port­er John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or

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