Synthetic marijuana, with nicknames such as “Mr. Smiley,” “Blaze,” and “Spice,” has been blamed on hospitalizations of at least three teens who have smoked or ingested the fake pot trying to get a legal high, according to a new report.
The substance is created through a mixture of plant and herbal materials and sprayed with chemicals. And until recently, this relatively new drug has been sold legally in convenience stores around the country as potpourri or herbal incense. Perhaps more troubling, the drug is apparently still available online.
Joanna Cohen, an emergency medicine physician at Children´s National Medical Center in Washington, DC, told USA Today that there was very little information available on this substance in medical literature when it first started making waves.
With the cases that have been reported, namely three teen ER visits, a number of visible “telltale signs” are now known, including excessive sweating, agitation, speech trouble, aggression and restlessness, and “euphoric and psychoactive effects” commonly associated with traditional marijuana use.
Given the growing popularity of this drug with teens and young adults, “it´s important to share the information we have with other doctors and help parents and schools be on the lookout” for symptoms, which require immediate medical attention, said Cohen, lead author of the report, published today in the journal Pediatrics.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse filed a report in November stating it found nearly one in nine high school seniors had tried the synthetic marijuana in the past year, second only to the number of teens who had used marijuana.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported that the synthetic marijuana started to become a problem in 2009 and quickly grew in popularity. It said it has handled nearly 7,000 related calls in 2011, more than double the number received in 2010.
In the latest report, Cohen and colleagues presented three case studies of teenagers who visited the ER after ingesting the fake pot. Each teen suffered similar symptoms, such as rapid heartbeat and high blood pressure. All three were treated and eventually released from the hospital.
“We became concerned about it after seeing these teenagers, and when we researched the literature, we realized there is very little out there about the effects of these compounds,” said Cohen. “We wanted to publish these case reports mostly because we wanted to share the information we had gathered to let the medical community know what we were seeing.”
She said it is difficult to say if the symptoms experienced by the three teens is typical with this drug because there is so much we don´t know about it yet. “The big danger is that kids´ brains are still developing and we don´t know about the long-term effects. It can have serious consequences such as memory loss, [mental] deficits, and psychosis with long-term, repeated use.”
Federal lawmakers have yet to pass a bill banning the sales of fake marijuana, but at least 39 states in the union have adopted their own bans, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Drug Enforcement Administration earlier this month extended its ban on five chemicals used to produce the synthetic drug. Its one-year ban, which is set to expire shortly, puts a Schedule I classification on those substances, meaning they are the most restricted under the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I drugs are found to have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical uses.
Cohen said urine drug screens are useless because the compounds don´t show up in them, “so comprehensive lab work is necessary to confirm use.” She added that if the teens hadn´t told medical staff which substances they had used, it is likely a diagnosis and cause of symptoms would go unknown.
“There is very little available to test for these substances. The tests aren´t routinely available and are costly,” Bruce Goldberger, professor and director of toxicology at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville, told Kim Carollo at ABC News.
“We sometimes have no idea what we´re dealing with,” added Dr. Corey Slovis, chair of emergency medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. “We may see a patient who is extremely agitated with symptoms that could be due to some other kind of drug.”
Slovis said the compounds found in synthetic marijuana are much stronger than real marijuana, and the bigger problem is that it is made with different ingredients. Those ingredients make it difficult to determine specifically which agent or agents is responsible for symptoms.
David Rotenberg, vice president of treatment at Caron Treatment Centers in Wernersville, Pennsylvania, told Denise Mann of WebMD that he is concerned about the rise in use of these compounds and the number of kids who are finding themselves hospitalized as a result.
There are so many unknowns, he said. “You don´t know what you are taking, or what dose you are getting, and what the kid is predisposed to.”
These drugs are perhaps even more attractive to kids who are already abusing other drugs and alcohol. “Kids who have drug problems and are put on probation or are in an outpatient treatment program gravitate toward this stuff because it doesn´t show up in all urine screens,” he said.
“This stuff is bad news,” he added.