Rapid heartbeat, aggression, aggravation, irritability and permanent cardiovascular damage are some of the side effects of synthetic marijuana, which was available for purchase at convenience stores and gas stations across the U.S. until recently.
Although the sale and possession of the drug was made illegal in March 2011, the Prospect police responded to an emergency medical call in which a person suffered severe side effects as a result of smoking synthetic cannabis in December.
“The person was unresponsive,” Prospect Resident Trooper Matt Comeau said. “They didn’t know who they were or where they were.”
The drug, which includes chemical compounds that mimic the effects of marijuana when smoked, was sold under the guise of being a type of incense when it was still legal to sell and purchase. With the disclaimer “not for human consumption” on its packaging, manufacturers were able to sell a product that was labeled as incense, but widely used as a legal substitute for marijuana.
“We’re a small town that doesn’t have a drug problem,” Comeau said, adding that the emergency call surprised him. Some stores in Waterbury and other urban Connecticut areas have been found to illegally sell synthetic marijuana products, Comeau said, but none in Prospect have.
Synthetic cannabinoids were included in the Controlled Substances Act in 2011, and in July 2012, the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 was signed into law. This act banned all types of synthetic marijuana.
Although synthetic marijuana is now illegal, it hasn’t stopped many people from using it as a marijuana substitute.
“It’s a huge issue,” said Quinnipiac Medical School toxicology specialist Dr. Victoria Richards. “Particularly with young boys who want to try it, but don’t necessarily want to go through the process of getting natural marijuana from a dealer.”
Although the drug was once legal, it’s extremely dangerous, Richards said.
“Dose to dose, with synthetic cannabis versus natural cannabis, the tachycardia and tachyarrhythmia isn’t seen to the same extent or the same effect with the natural,” she said.
Tachycardia, an abnormally fast heartbeat, and tachyarrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat, are common side effects of the drug, Richards said. The chemicals that comprise synthetic marijuana are very potent, affecting the cannabis receptors much more strongly than natural marijuana, sometimes causing severe reactions.
“People think they’re safe because they’re labeled as ‘herbal’ and ‘natural’ and are sold in stores. Not so,” Richards said.
Synthetic marijuana goes by a variety of names, including K2, Spice, Puff, Demon Passion Smoke, Magma, Ninja, Nitro, Blaze, Blueberry Haze, Dank and Ono Budz.
There are several types of chemical compounds that produce a high similar to that of natural marijuana. Cannabicyclohexanol, JWH-018, CP-47 and JWH-200 are some of the chemical compounds that are commonly used as marijuana substitutes.
Besides containing the chemical that produces a high, known as a synthetic cannabinoid, Richards said artificial marijuana products may also harbor other dangerous chemicals and substances that are not listed on the ingredients.
“These synthetic cannabis products might be contaminated or adulterated,” Richards said. “There have been reports of K2 being adulterated with Albuterol, an anabolic steroid that has been shown to cause some damage.”
There are no studies that show long-term effects, but Richards said the drug does have the potential to cause permanent cardiovascular damage.
Richards warned that users of synthetic marijuana will not feel the same high that natural marijuana produces and that overdosing on synthetic cannabis will likely cause adverse reactions.
“K2 offers a different kind of high than marijuana,” she said. “People think they’re not feeling the effects as much as they want to, so they smoke more.”
Richards said she believes the fact that synthetic cannabis is now illegal will not deter people from using it.
“People who want it are going to find a way to get it,” she said.