I have seen a definitive increase in the number of stories in the mainstream media in the last few months about people using synthetic marijuana and experiencing frightening and sometimes fatal reactions.
This week it was reported that three people in Colorado died recently after smoking synthetic marijuana, and up to 75 hospitalizations have been reported since the beginning of August. Colorado State Officials and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) fear that all of the cases have some connection with synthetic marijuana.
Synthetic marijuana is a chemically engineered substance similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (“THC”), the active ingredient in marijuana. When smoked or ingested, synthetic marijuana can produce a high similar to marijuana.
Initially developed for pain management research and the effects of cannabis on the brain, these substances have recently become a popular alternative to marijuana. Synthetic cannabinoid compounds originally were developed to facilitate study of cannabinoid receptor pharmacology, but in recent years have emerged as drugs of abuse. In 2005, synthetic marijuana products marketed as “Spice” first emerged in European countries, before appearing in the United States in 2009, where they were marketed initially as “K2.”
These synthetic cannabinoids have purported psychotropic effects when smoked or ingested. These substances are typically found in powder form or are dissolved in appropriate solvents, such as acetone, before being sprayed on the plant material contained in the herbal incense products.
Synthetic cannabinoids alone or spiked on plant material have the potential to be extremely harmful due to their method of manufacture and high pharmacological potency. There is little information regarding the pharmacology, toxicology, and safety of these substances in humans given the minimal amount of pre-clinical investigations undertaken regarding these substances; therefore, the full danger of these drugs has not yet been determined.
The CDC posted an alert on their website in February 2013 warning the medical community about possible kidney failures in 16 separate cases all linked to synthetic marijuana. Although none of the patients in the 16 cases of kidney failure died, all of them were hospitalized, and some required dialysis.
Little is known about the short- and long-term side effects of synthetic marijuana, but what is clear is that use of synthetic marijuana is on the rise. In 2010, poison control centers had 2,906 calls about synthetic marijuana reactions, which more than doubled in 2011 to 6,968, with a slight decrease to 5,228 calls to in 2012.
In December 2012, several news outlets, mainly CNN reported the story of a teenager named Emily Bauer who nearly died after using synthetic marijuana. She had been using synthetic marijuana almost daily for two weeks leading up to the episode that nearly ended her life. She had a bad headache and went to lie down in bed to take a nap, but when she awoke her family says that she was an entirely different person.
She began stumbling, slurring her speech and became agitated and violent. She was rushed by ambulance to the emergency room where she bit hospital staff, herself, and the guardrails of her bed. Her family thought that once the drug “wore off” that she would be fine and they could talk to her about the dangers of drugs, however the drug never “wore off.”
Her stepfather, who has been in her life since infancy said, “In four days’ time, we went from thinking everything is going to be OK and we’ll put her in drug rehabilitation to now you don’t know if she’s going to make it.”
She was so violent that doctors put her in a medically induced coma for her own safety. While in the induced coma she underwent an MRI where doctors found that Emily had experienced several severe strokes.
During her coma, the swelling and pressure in her brain became so great that the only option her family had was to consent to a surgery where doctors would drill a hole in the back of Emily’s head to relieve the pressure and drain fluids.
Emily’s neurologists showed her mother, Tonya Bauer, the scans that had been taken of Emily’s brain. Emily’s mother wrote on Facebook, “They told us that all white areas on images were dead. It looked to us at least 70% of the images were white.”
Emily was partially blind, unable to talk, walk, feed herself, or use the restroom on her own. The strokes caused by the synthetic marijuana had robbed Emily of her most basic human functions.
After months of ups and downs Emily was still unable to walk but she was released from the hospital to continue her rehabilitation at home. Her family had to modify their home, adding wheelchair ramps and a mechanized lift to move Emily from her wheelchair to her bed.
Emily now requires complete 24/7 medical care.
I have been following her story closely and was happy to see that she went back to high school this week. She is still unable to walk and is still in a wheelchair, doctors are still unsure if Emily will ever be able to walk again. She is still partially blind, cannot read, write, or use the restroom on her own, and requires the help of a team of aides during her entire school day.
She is nowhere close to being completely recovered, but her return to high school is a day that her parents never thought they would see.
Emily went from a being a sassy-looking teenager with brightly colored hair, to a young woman who cannot see, read, or walk and requires total assistance to complete the most basic tasks, all because of synthetic marijuana.
Smoking synthetic marijuana was probably the most frightening thing that has ever happened to me. The terrifying experience that I endured is not uncommon, and I was lucky to escape without any long-lasting side effects.
I was born and raised in Colorado, where the social stance regarding marijuana has always been lenient. More than 50% of Colorado voters believe that marijuana should be legalized for recreational use by adults, which was more than evident when Colorado Amendment 64 was passed, legalizing possession of up to one ounce of cannabis for adults over age 21.
I have a medical condition called craniosynostosis, which is when the soft-spot in your head closes during infancy (it isn’t supposed to close until the late teens or early 20’s). When the soft-spot closes it doesn’t allow room for the brain to grow and can cause significant developmental delays. My soft-spot was surgically opened during two separate surgeries during my infancy, I had brain surgery at 13-months and again at 18-months.
My head was cut from ear-to-ear and from my forehead to the back of my head to open my cranium. Then my forehead was removed and reattached with screws and pins. Lastly, I had a complete cranial facial reconstruction. Although this alleviated the major issue of my brain not being able to grow, it left me with significant and severe nerve pain throughout my head, neck and extremities.
Cannabis is ten times more effective than Morphine on nerve pain specifically.
Clinical trials seem to indicate that either extracts of the Cannabis sativa plant containing known amounts of the active compounds (mainly THC and CBD) or diverse synthetic derivatives of THC are promising treatments for painful conditions that do not respond to available treatments, such as neuropathic, inflammatory and oncologic pain.
To treat my nerve pain, I have been prescribed amitriptyline, nortriptyline, gabapentin, Topomax, and Tramadol, none of which have provided much relief. When I have used cannabis to treat my nerve pain it is almost immediately effective, it relieves most, if not all of my nerve pain.
However, I live in a non-medicinal state and cannabis is not legally available to me here. Since the death of my best friend, Rachel Hoffman in a buy-bust operation gone wrong, I have been too paranoid to possess marijuana with any sort of regularity to treat my moderate-to-severe nerve pain.
I currently use Tramadol to treat my nerve pain, which was prescribed to me by my neurologist. The side effects of Tramadol include, but are not limited to: dizziness, weakness, sleepiness, difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, headache, nervousness, agitation, uncontrollable shaking of a part of the body, muscle tightness, changes in mood, drowsiness, heartburn or indigestion, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, itching, sweating, chills, dry mouth, seizures, sores on the inside of your mouth, nose, eyes, or throat, flu-like symptoms, hives, rash, difficulty swallowing or breathing, swelling of the face, throat, tongue, lips, eyes, hands, feet, ankles, or lower legs, hoarseness, and hallucinations, just to name a few…. Tramadol doesn’t work nearly as well on my nerve pain as cannabis, but it is all that is legally available to me that works at all.
When I heard about synthetic marijuana I was hopeful that it might be effective to treat my nerve pain AND it was legal, it sounded too good to be true!
I purchased some synthetic marijuana at a tobacco and pipe shop. The synthetic marijuana I purchased was called, “Majesty.” It came in a small purple bag that cost around $45.00 for approximately 2-grams, which was consistent with the street price of “real” marijuana in the area at the time.
I am an experienced cannabis user for the aforementioned reasons and am familiar with the side effects of “real” marijuana, and what I was about to experience was anything but familiar.
I loaded a small bowl in my living room with my roommate at the time. The synthetic marijuana did not look anything like cannabis, it was dark in color, had no scent, and was comprised mostly of plant matter that looked like sticks.
I took a small hit and so did my roommate and we felt nothing, so I decided to take another small hit thinking that what I had just purchased was completely bogus. I shouldn’t have taken the first hit, let alone the second.
Within seconds my heart began to race, I began to sweat profusely, began having difficulty breathing, and became disoriented.
During my youth I have experimented with a few drugs and know, more or less what to expect from drugs, but this nightmare was unlike anything I had ever experienced in my life, I began to panic.
My roommate had only taken one hit so he was not quite feeling the horrible effects I was feeling. I really did think I was going to die and the ensuing half hour was nothing short of complete hell.
I was able to stay calm enough to at least breathe, my roommate was coaching me on my breathing, “breathe! in-and-out, in-and-out.” I was literally dripping in sweat, my super-long hair was entirely soaked, and there were beads of sweat dripping from my hands.
My roommate was sitting next to me, rubbing my back as he continued to coach my breathing. If he hadn’t been there I don’t know what would have happened.
After about thirty minutes, the intensity of the synthetic marijuana began to subside, breathing became easier, my heart-rate slowed, and began to sweat less and less, but the mental confusion remained.
It felt as though I was watching everything from a third-person perspective and was unable to fully process where I was or what was happening. My roommate was very concerned at this point, he had the phone in-hand, ready to call 911. I begged him not to call. My state doesn’t have any Good Samaritan laws and we could have both been in legal trouble for calling 911, also I didn’t feel that he needed to call 911 at that point.
My roommate suggested that I go and lie down and that he would keep an eye on me. The only relief that I experienced from my confused mental state was to lie perfectly still in a dark and soundless room.
By the next morning I began to feel “normal” again, the confusion had mostly worn off, and the physical side effects had also subsided. I had zero appetite and had a very metallic taste in my mouth for the next three days. I also had a significant mental-fog that lasted for the next few days as well, a feeling that things were going in slow-motion.
Within a week I was completely back to normal and for that I am exceedingly grateful. After reading about these people who have experienced far, far worse outcomes than I did, I can only say that I was lucky.
Many people, like Emily Bauer and the 75 hospitalized are not as lucky as I was.
Emily’s stepdad wants to make it clear that he doesn’t want her story to be a cautionary tale about why cannabis should be legalized, his focus is his daughter’s recovery, but he is also very clear that he thinks synthetic marijuana should be 100% illegal.
Using synthetic marijuana for the first and only time was one of the most terrifying experiences I have ever endured. “You’re hearing some pretty bad things with the synthetic cannabinoids — part of that has to do with the potency. It can be 100 times more potent than marijuana,” said U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman Barbara Carreno.
To respect Emily’s stepdad’s wishes I won’t turn her story into an argument about why cannabis should be legalized, although it would be easy to make a case for it. However, I do agree that synthetic marijuana should be unequivocally illegal on a federal level.
This is one of the most dangerous drugs available, and it is still legal in some states, this needs to change immediately so that more people, children and adults alike, people like Emily Bauer and the 75 hospitalized in Colorado are not reduced to catatonic shells of themselves.
Synthetic marijuana is NOTHING like cannabis, or “real” marijuana. Synthetic marijuana is as close to real marijuana as the “chicken” in a McNugget.