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.
EASY TO REACH
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.
NEW AND POPULAR
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 firstname.lastname@example.org