What is K2 and Why is it Dangerous?
Shocking stories about the use of the synthetic marijuana, or K2, have been sweeping newsstands and social media channels. That is because an alarming number of individuals on the drug are flooding emergency rooms and police departments, acting violent, delusional, anxious and combative. U.S. poison centers have experienced a 229 percent increase in calls related to use and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has declared the number of synthetic marijuana overdoses an outbreak. But what exactly is synthetic marijuana and why is there a spike in use?
The rise of synthetic marijuana is complex and its name is deceiving. In reality, synthetic marijuana is nothing like traditional marijuana. Synthetic marijuana is a mixture of industrial chemicals intended to mimic the effects of THC, the naturally occurring active compound found in marijuana. The chemicals are sprayed on bits of dried plant material, packaged in colorful wrappers, nicknamed “poison packets,” and sold under the guise of potpourri and herbal incense in local convenience stores, smoke shops and even online. Synthetic marijuana use can lead to side effects like rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation and hallucinations.
The most widely known synthetic marijuana is called “spice” or “K2,” which is banned in the U.S., along with several of the individual chemicals used to make it. Then why is it still so readily available? A critical piece of the puzzle is that chemists are constantly tweaking the molecular makeup of the drug to create new compounds and avoid regulation. With the chemical makeup of these drugs constantly changing, law enforcement agencies are unable to keep up. So these new, variations of the drug are technically legal to sell, distribute and use. Even more concerning is that the side effects of these new drugs are unknown and unpredictable, prompting surges in emergencies related to their use. One of these new, modified compounds dubbed “spike” recently triggered an outbreak of overdoses in Syracuse, NY with as many as 20 individuals overdosing per day.
Escalating the problem is the cost. A joint of K2 is very cheap, as little as a dollar. Because of its lower cost than marijuana, the drug is frequently used by homeless and poor individuals, as seen recently in Harlem, New York. Many of these individuals suffer from untreated psychiatric disorders, which may increase the negative side effects of synthetic marijuana. Synthetic marijuana dealers are targeting this community, staking out clients near drug treatment centers, homeless shelters and mental health clinics and even smuggling the drugs into jails and psychiatric centers.
What is being done to combat the problem?
States across the U.S. have issued public health alerts and are working to introduce legislation to limit the sale, possession and use of synthetic marijuana. In New York City, legislation has recently been passed to outlaw the sale or use of synthetic marijuana and any imitation or variant, which hopefully closes the loophole of the constantly changing concoctions. Penalties will include jail time, costly fines and even revocation of a store’s license to sell tobacco.
At the same time, Federal and New York State authorities are working to eliminate these drugs from the streets. They arrested members of an international drug trafficking operation responsible for importing enough of these drugs to produce 260,000 packets of synthetic marijuana and recently seized nearly 2 million packets of synthetic marijuana from an apartment in the Bronx, New York. Together, new legislation and the push to rid synthetic marijuana from New York City have made positive strides in reducing the availability and use of synthetic marijuana in known hubs like Harlem.
But in addition to focusing on penalties, it’s imperative that state and local governments also provide effective intervention and treatment for those addicted or engaging in risky use of the synthetic drugs. Stricter penalties and legislation alone will not prevent or treat the current epidemic or address the profound social needs of some of the highly vulnerable groups of users.
Nicole Piazza is a Research Assistant at CASAColumbia