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K2 & Spice

Loose K2 spice on a table

What Is K2?

By now, you’ve heard a lot about marijuana. You might have read up about it being a gateway drug (or not, depending on your source); you might have read about how marijuana is not as dangerous as alcohol, and you might have read that marijuana use is habit-forming and can become an addiction on its own.

But you may not have heard of K2, a kind of synthetic marijuana, or you’ve heard that it’s a supposedly safer form of weed. You may have heard that it can’t be harmful because it doesn’t show up in urine tests, and you can get it at convenience stores. But the truth about K2 is that it can be much worse than anything you’ve heard about marijuana.

A New Kind of Drug

“K2” is one of the colloquial names given to what is properly known as a synthetic cannabinoid. The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that synthetic cannabinoids are any kind of a drug that is sprayed onto a herbal base and presented as a healthier form of marijuana. However, to circumvent local drug laws, they are also advertised as being “not for human consumption” – a sly wink at the origins of synthetic cannabinoids.

The man who created the substance is Dr. John W. Huffman, who did so as a way of experimenting with the naturally occurring chemical compound of cannabinoid in marijuana. It is the cannabinoid that acts on the human brain’s plentiful cannabinoid receptors, which is what causes people to experience psychoactive effects when they consume marijuana.

Huffman intended for his work in synthesizing cannabinoids to be purely experimental – hence the idea of such substances being “not for human consumption” – but realized that people would be tempted to try synthetic marijuana for themselves (thanks, in part, to the detailed instructions Huffman included in his research). Even though he came out quite strongly against the idea, saying that it was akin to Russian roulette, suppliers saw the dollar signs behind marketing a new kind of drug.

Blind and Paralyzed

Huffman had very good reasons for not wanting his creation to find its way out of laboratories and into the hands of people looking to get high. Unlike marijuana, synthetic cannabinoids can be absolutely devastating to users, causing a range of effects that go far beyond even the worst marijuana trip:

  • Vomiting
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Agitation
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Irregular heartbeats
  • Kidney failure
  • Psychosis
  • Brain damage
  • Death

These are not idle warnings or scare tactics. The Daily Beast reports of an 18-year-old man who died after consuming synthetic marijuana in July 2013 that he had purchased from a local smoke shop. Popular Science carries the story of a 16-year-old girl who was left blind and paralyzed after she smoked some synthetic marijuana she had bought from a gas station. Today profiled the case of a 19-year-old woman who died after taking one hit of synthetic pot with friends.

How K2 Kills

Why are synthetic cannabinoids so deadly? The first answer to that question is that, despite some basic similarities, synthetic cannabinoids are not marijuana. That’s not merely rhetoric; that’s the position of a number of researchers, including Dr. Huffman. K2 and marijuana may both utilize cannabinoids to trigger the appropriate receptors in the brain, and vendors may claim to be selling a kind of legal, healthy weed (that, paradoxically, is not intended for human consumption), but synthetic cannabinoids are not marijuana.

Marijuana works because the active cannabinoid, tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC) binds to receptors on nerve cells in the brain, which is what brings about the change of behavior traditionally associated with marijuana consumption – specifically, according to LiveScience, thinking, memory, pleasure, appetite, coordination, and the perception of time.

But what about synthetic cannabinoids like K2? THC binds to receptors only partially, which is why it’s highly unlikely that a marijuana smoker will become addicted after one puff; although, such an action could certainly plant the seed of addiction, comparable to someone taking a single drink of alcohol. Synthetic marijuana, on the other hand, completely binds to the cannabinoid receptors in the brain, and there are a lot of them – present “in very high levels in several brain regions,” according to the Journal of Neuroendocrinology. While marijuana merely tickles the receptors, synthetic weed smothers them, overloading them, causing the effects mentioned above, and damaging surrounding regions of the brain as well.

Synthetic cannabinoids are specifically created to overwhelm the receptors, explains an emergency room doctor and toxicologist to Forbes, which makes them even more dangerous because they are engineered to be over a hundred times more potent than regular marijuana. It could take a user a hundred puffs of a blunt or hits off a bong to damage himself in the way that a single dose of K2 could.

The Not-Yet-Illegal High

Teens buying and selling K2Adding to the danger is that in the hands of manufacturers and chemists who are not particularly interested in the well-being of their customers, K2 (and other comparable synthetic drugs like Spice) are often adulterated with unknown toxic substances to make them even more addictive and more powerful, warns LiveScience. While users are told that what they are getting – sold over the counter of gas stations, says USA Today – is healthier than normal marijuana, and presented in gaudy, flashy packets with innocuous names (what The Baltimore Sun called “cartoon packaging”), the reality is that victims (most of them teenagers) have no idea what they are putting into their body.

According to The Fix, the chemicals in synthetic weed “vary wildly,” and many of them have not been tested on humans, so there is no telling what effects they might have. A spokesperson for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration tells The Fix that two identical packets of K2 might contain very different chemicals; one could have no effect on a user, and the other might bring a user to the point of death.

As this makes K2, and other drugs of its ilk, difficult to track, it also makes them difficult to control. When one strain of chemical compound is identified and regulated by the DEA, another one crops up, cooked up by an underground chemist with nothing more than a basic chemistry education. The DEA has added four synthetic cannabinoids to its list of Schedule I Drugs – drugs with no medicinal value and that have a high potential for physical and mental dependency. Even as this happens, a new drug is engineered, one that will take time to investigate and criminalize. As explains, this is how vendors can claim that their substances will give users a “legal high” because technically, their products are not yet illegal.

K2, Teenagers, and Getting Help

You may have read that most of the victims of K2 and other synthetic cannabinoids are teenagers. Again, that’s not a scare tactic – according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 11 percent of high school seniors tried synthetic marijuana in 2012. Two years prior, in 2010, over 11,400 emergency room visits were related to K2, and over 75 percent of the patients were aged 12-29. A study surveyed more than 330 college-aged students in a large public university, and 17 percent of them reported using synthetic weed at least once, for reasons of curiosity (19.2 percent), to get high (17.4 percent), and to fit in and as a response to peer pressure (4 percent and 3.8 percent, respectively).

Pensive young man sitting outside.There are many pressures and challenges that come with being a young person in America today, but synthetic cannabinoids like K2 are not the answer. Whatever spin may be put on the packages or the websites of the vendors who sell them, these drugs have absolutely no redeeming value whatsoever. They are not healthy. They are not alternatives to marijuana. In fact, speaking to The Fix, the communications director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws says that most of the people who talk to him about K2 don’t seem to enjoy it. And it doesn’t take much of these drugs to lead to death.

But these drugs are out there, and it may be hard to know how to deal with the temptation to try, or to know what to do if you, or someone you know, are using them. That’s why Next Generation Village is here – to provide the treatment programs and therapies your teen needs. We have experts standing by who can answer your questions about K2. We have counselors who can help you learn how to control and manage the urge and craving to use K2. Whether you need help – or you are seeking help for your son or daughter – we are here. All it takes to make that first step on the journey is one phone call. We can make the rest happen together. Call now.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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