K2 is still turning lives upside down, even those who don’t understand what it is or mistake it for real marijuana. Three years ago, it knocked out people in New York City, turning them into zombies. Now, in 2019, the illegal street drug is turning up in spiked versions of the cannabis extract CBD.

Illegal “synthetic marijuana” is even finding its way into vapes and edibles, according to a recent Associated Press (AP) report

Users like Jay Jenkins learned the hard way about the deadly chemicals.

At the nudging of a friend, he vaped a substance, thinking that it was CBD, a chemical compound synthesized from the cannabis plant. AP notes that CBD is “a “suddenly popular compound extracted from the cannabis plant that marketers say can treat a range of ailments without getting users high.” 

And, as Health explains, the natural substance is supposed to “impart a feeling of relaxation and calm. Unlike its cousin tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), it’s not psychoactive.” 

Jenkins’ friend told him that the substance would relax him.

Instead of getting CBD, Jenkins vaped a product spiked with the street drug known as K2 or Spice and ended up an emergency room.

For its study, AP commissioned laboratory testing of the vape oil that affected Jenkins as well as nearly 30 other vape products that are sold as CBD. It writes in its report, “Ten of the 30 contained types of synthetic marijuana — drugs commonly known as K2 or spice that have no known medical benefits — while others had no CBD at all.”

What Is K2?

K2 is often confused with natural marijuana, but the two are very different. The street drug is part of a group of substances known as synthetic cannabinoids, as WebMD reports.

 First, it’s important to understand what synthetic cannabinoids are.

Synthetic cannabinoids—commonly known on the streets as K2, Spice, and Scooby Snax—are human-made chemicals. Some of these chemicals are created in laboratories. They are part of a group of drugs known as new psychoactive substances (NPS). 

According to WebMD, scientists initially created these drugs for research purposes. That changed once drug manufacturers read scientific journals to learn how to produce the chemicals. From there, they started to make illegal drugs for profit.

Manufacturers claim the chemicals mimic the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychotropic compound found in marijuana. The truth is these chemicals are similar to amphetamines and are highly dangerous and addictive. 

The chemical makeup of synthetic cannabinoids varies widely, creating risk for substance users. In 2012, the government identified 52 different kinds of synthetic cannabinoids—up from just two in 2009.

Still, many users and some retailers who sell synthetic marijuana incorrectly think these drugs are less potent than marijuana and safe to use.

In most cases, synthetic cannabinoids are sprayed onto dried plant material before that material smoked. People may roll the dried plant mixture into a joint or put it into a pipe before smoking it. The final product is touted as a “legal high” from “fake weed.” 

These mixtures are sold at gas stations, vape shops, and other small retail stores. With names like “herbal incense” and “potpourri,” manufacturers bill them as household items not made for human consumption to evade oversight from authorities. The plant material also can be mixed with natural marijuana, brewed as a tea, or added to food.

Synthetic cannabinoids can also be vaporized in liquid form and inhaled with electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) and other devices, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). 

WebMD reports that synthetic cannabinoids first surfaced in the United States in 2008. In less than four years, their effects would be felt nationally.  “Between 2010 and 2011, calls to poison control centers due to synthetic cannabinoid use jumped by 240 percent,” the health site reports.

Why is K2 Confused With Real Marijuana?

It is easy to confuse real marijuana with “fake weed” or “synthetic marijuana” because the chemicals act similarly to those found in natural marijuana. The only two similarities between them are:

  • They both contain plant material.
  • They both affect the same brain cell receptors as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana.

Still, as NIDA explains, synthetic cannabinoids are not the same chemicals found in natural marijuana.

K2, Spice, and other substances are labeled as safe and legal to use, but that’s not the case, as NIDA warns. “In fact, they are not safe and may affect the brain much more powerfully than marijuana; their actual effects can be unpredictable and, in some cases, more dangerous or even life-threatening,” it writes.

While these potent chemicals may appeal to users seeking a stronger high, the outcome of using these drugs can be unpredictable and deadly.

Part of the unpredictability of these street drugs is the fact that their composition changes rapidly, making it quite challenging to know what’s in each batch that circulates on the streets.

NIDA writes that “Because the chemical composition of many synthetic cannabinoid products is unknown and may change from batch to batch, these products are likely to contain substances that cause dramatically different effects than the user might expect.”

Such uncertainty can land people in the hospital, like Jenkins, or worse. 

How Do Synthetic Cannabinoids Affect the Body?

Another reason people confuse K2 and Spice with traditional weed is that the effects experienced by users in both groups are similar. These include:

  • Elevated mood
  • A relaxed, drowsy state
  • An altered perception of reality
  • Psychosis 

However, this is where the similarities end. People who use K2 can experience much more extreme and dangerous effects than people who use natural marijuana. Some users of synthetic cannabinoids have reported experiencing:

  • Rapid heart rate 
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Violent behavior toward themselves, others
  • Thoughts of suicide, self-harm

K2 also has been reported to cause hallucinations, heart attacks, seizures, and even kidney failure.

“Zombies” In NYC

On a sweltering July day in 2016, More than 30 “zombies” were reported staggering through Brooklyn. Some of them wore blank stares while others were falling down or found knocked out cold on the borough’s sidewalks. Others had trouble standing up or were just slumped over, unable to stand up at all.

All were suspected of overdosing on K2. Some were taken to area hospitals for issues such as lethargy and respiratory difficulties. New York City health officials, seeing how dire the situation was, issued an advisory to publicly warn about the increase in overdoses and ER visits that were the result of synthetic cannabinoids use.

Earlier, in the spring of that same year, several dozen people in St. Petersburg, Florida, got sick after using K2 over several weeks. The local CBS affiliate station WTSP talked with authorities there, who said they believed the wave of sickness began with a bad batch of K2.

“That’s why Spice is so dangerous; you never know what you’re getting. It’s a group of chemicals, and as one group is outlawed, they change it for a different chemical,” Yolanda Fernandez, spokesperson for the St. Petersburg Police Department, told the station.

Stopping Synthetic Marijuana Use

A lot remains unknown about the effects of synthetic marijuana, mainly because the chemical makeup of these designer drugs change frequently. What is known, however, is that once the use of an addictive substance becomes chronic or frequent, dependence sets in and tolerance to the drug grows. 

Addiction is not far behind, as some users may find it hard to quit synthetic marijuana for good. Signs of addiction include craving the drug despite its negative effects or using it in larger amounts. 

Those who want to end their K2 use may experience:

  • Headaches
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Depression

Former users have reported intense and painful Spice withdrawal symptoms, such as vomiting and insomnia, after abruptly stopping synthetic marijuana, but those symptoms were typically not life-threatening.

People who use may want to quit the drug cold turkey, but that is strongly discouraged. The safer way to stop using synthetic marijuana is to start medical detox an accredited addiction treatment facility. A drug rehab or detox facility can guide users through complications that unfold from the shifting chemical makeup of these drugs. 

Medical professionals can safely monitor synthetic drug users for unforeseen outcomes of the withdrawal process, which can include heart problems and severe psychological distress.

There are no medications specifically approved to treat withdrawals from synthetic marijuana products like K2 and Spice. However, a treatment facility can also give users medications to alleviate withdrawal symptoms like nausea and vomiting.

Detoxing from synthetic marijuana with the guidance of addiction care professionals helps to ensure a safe recovery from the use of these drugs. Because the symptoms of synthetic marijuana withdrawal can last for weeks, it is highly recommended that K2 users attend an inpatient or outpatient drug treatment program to ensure success. 

Substance treatment also includes therapy options and a relapse prevention plan. Synthetic marijuana users often receive cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to put clients on the path to long-term recovery

What Happens if I Continue Using K2, Spice?

Synthetic marijuana products lack the antipsychotic chemical found in natural cannabis, and this puts users at risk of psychosis, especially those who have a history of mental illness.  

Psychosis is characterized by hallucinations or delusions and is often described as a “loss of contact with reality.” Psychosis induced by these synthetic drugs can last for more than a week, according to an American Psychiatric Association study.

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