Synthetic marijuana: A dangerous drug in a pretty package

Spice, which has been around for nearly a decade, is relatively easy for teens to get



On Monday, there were 25, mostly young people, some vomiting, hallucinating and confused. Some were just out of it, really out of it. By Tuesday, there were nine more. Police in Manchester and Concord scrambled to confiscate as many of the pink and blue packages as they could find in neighborhood gas stations, head shops and convenience stores. 

Within three days during the week of Aug. 11, 2014, at least 44 people in New Hampshire had overdosed on the drug known as “Spice” and the governor had declared a state of emergency.

Also known as K2, and synthetic marijuana, Spice is often marketed as potpourri or incense, but is hardly used for that. With its cartoon packaging, fun fruit flavors, and names like “Green Giant,” “Scooby Snax,” “Crazy Monkey,” and “Smacked”— the intended market and purpose is clear.

And that should make parents concerned, said Jayson Pratt program director at Phoenix House’s Hill A. Feinberg Academy in Dallas, Texas.

“What parents need to be worried about is that this is probably the easiest drug for kids to access, period. Beyond everything else,” Pratt said. “And the reason is, nobody is ID-ing for this at gas stations, anybody can get a hold of it at any time.”

“Because it’s so easy for children to get, this is the drug that children respect the least. They think, ‘it can’t be dangerous if they sell it down at the gas station. And that is a big, deadly combination when you’re talking about an adolescent brain that doesn’t have any breaks and naturally is into risky behavior and doesn’t really consider the consequences.”

And the consequences can be severe. While no one died during the spate of Spice overdoses in summer 2014, elsewhere, kids have died. And merely overdosing is no treat either.

“A Spice overdose doesn’t look like a marijuana overdose,” Pratt said. “This overdose looks an awful lot like a methamphetamine overdose, so profuse sweating, extreme dehydration, (and) some aggressive behavior.”

Spice is typically smoked and is made up of dried plant matter sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids — a chemical in the same family as THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, said Jennifer Chisholm, a licensed social worker and drug and alcohol counselor with the Adolescent Substance Abuse Treatment Program at Child and Family Services in New Hampshire.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Spice is often labeled “not for human consumption,” as a way of avoiding inspection by the Food and Drug Administration.

Spice has been around for at least a decade, Pratt said. It started out in the western part of the United States and made its way east about seven years ago, but it went largely unnoticed for about two more years before catching the attention of law enforcement and treatment officials.

In 2012, the federal government banned the sale and use of synthetic marijuana, prompting 43 states, including New Hampshire, to follow suit. However, the laws are typically too slow for the quick change artists making these drugs.

“One of the challenges with Spice,” Chisholm said. “Is that it is often unknown what chemicals are in it. The production of the chemicals used in the product has shifted over time in a cat-and-mouse game with regulators who were banning some of the substances used in its production.”

She said lawmakers would ban a list of chemicals, and the scientists creating the product would go back to the lab and change a molecule or two, which is enough to make a new chemical, one not on the banned list, but one that still got the user high.

Because Spice is not one specific chemical, Chisholm said, its effects vary.

“In general, however, Spice provides a mind-altering experience, or high,” she said. “Some clients say it mimics marijuana’s – and some clients say it is nothing at all like marijuana. I would guess that this disparity in descriptions is due to the clients smoking Spice that was sprayed with different compounds.”

One of the biggest concerns about Spice is there is no way to know what the plant matter in the packet has been treated with, so the person has no idea what he or she is smoking.

“The cannabinods (mind-altering chemicals) in Spice tend to be much, much stronger than in marijuana, and many people make the mistake of smoking it as if it were the same as marijuana – smoking the same amount that they would if they were smoking pot,” Chisholm said. “That is one way that overdoses happen. Another issue is that the dried plant matter is sprayed with the chemicals and mixed in batches. If the batch is not evenly mixed, it leads to uneven distribution of the chemicals, meaning that one packet of Spice could contain significantly more chemical that another packet from the same batch.”

 As for what it does to children’s bodies, Chisholm said, “we have no idea in the long run.”

“This is a relatively new issue, and we’re still waiting for the research to catch up,” she said. “I can tell you that Spice can be extremely addictive. People can become dependent on it and have serious withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop. This obviously makes quitting much more difficult.”

Nationally Spice use is going down. According to the Monitoring the Future Survey, a national survey that looks at drug use and attitudes among eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders, 5.8 percent of 12th-graders reported using Spice in the 12 months prior to taking the survey in 2014. This was down from 7.9 percent in 2013 and 11.3 percent in 2012.

Similar statistics were not available for New Hampshire, however, according to the 2013 NH Youth Risk Behavior Survey, of more than 35,000 students surveyed, 14.1 percent of high school students in New Hampshire reported having used synthetic drugs. The highest use was among high school seniors with more than 18 percent reporting they’d tried synthetic marijuana.

While parents can’t keep their kids locked away or have eyes on them 24 hours a day, Pratt said one of the best ways to keep kids safe is to talk about it.

“Don’t be afraid to talk about (drugs),” Pratt said. “Talking about it doesn’t increase the use. In fact, we haven’t been talking about this and the use has gone nothing but up. We need to do the opposite if we want a different outcome.”

Pratt said ideally parents will have already established a good rapport with their child, which includes regularly talking to them about friends, activities and things they are interested in.

“By establishing this baseline interest, a conversation about drugs becomes just another thing you talk about with them,” Pratt said.

One of the best approaches, Chisholm said, is to ask them questions to find out what they know. Parents can bring it up casually, mentioning they read an article about it. From there ask the child if he or she knows of other kids using this drug, what the drug is and what they know about it.

Pratt said once they’ve opened up and the parent has listened and asked questions, it’s then OK for the parent to express that this doesn’t seem like a safe thing to do.

“You’ll be able to get your message in during the conversation,” Pratt said.

Chisholm also recommends brushing up on the facts of the drug before bringing it up, she said, because there is a lot of misinformation out there and because many parents just haven’t heard of these drugs before.

For parents who think their child is taking this drug, Chisholm said some symptoms to watch out for are marked hyperactivity or sluggishness, red eyes, being ‘out of it,’ trouble speaking or making sentences, anxiety and paranoia, irritability, aggressive behaviors, nausea and vomiting, headaches, a very fast heart rate, chest pain, and heart palpitations.

In extreme cases, she said, Spice can cause psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations, blackout, thoughts of suicide, seizures and comas, and in rare cases, death.

Pratt said if parents notice any of these symptoms to get their child medical attention immediately.

Chisholm added that if a parent is concerned their child might be using Spice or any other substance, including alcohol, there are several routes to take. They could start by reaching out to their child’s primary care physician.

“Many medical offices in the state have started using the SBIRT, a screening tool for substance use, with adolescent patients,” she said. “Another great option is to connect with a licensed drug and alcohol counselor and have them administer a drug and alcohol use assessment.”

Chisholm said if the child has insurance, a parent can call the customer service phone number on the back of the child’s insurance card and get a list of covered providers in their area. Some school districts also have resources. Many districts in the state have Student Assistance Programs personnel on staff who work with at-risk youth, including those who are using or are at risk for using substances.

She also said parents should understand that confidentiality laws covering substance use treatment in the state of New Hampshire are different from physical health laws or mental health laws.

“If a 16-year old has a doctor’s visit because he may have strep throat, as his parent, I would have the right to ask about his test results and how he did in the appointment. With substance use treatment, youth 12 years and older have the right to confidential treatment, meaning that the child must sign a release to give permission to the provider to speak to anyone, including parents, about their substance use.

“The law exists because it was found to help make kids feel safe and be open with the provider. I will say that most of my minor clients do sign some sort of release to their parents; it’s very rare that I’m not allowed to have any contact. And involving families in adolescents’ treatment is shown to be a best practice, meaning it achieves better outcomes,” Chisholm said.

For more information, go to drugfreenh.org. This web site is designed to help individuals, families, and communities get information and find information on prevention efforts, effects of alcohol and other drugs, guidance on recovery and treatment and links to programs in the Granite State. 

Melanie Plenda is a full-time freelance journalist and mother living in Keene.

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