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Synthetic Marijuana Intoxicates the Young, Military

Synthetic marijuana can cause hallucinations

Spice can make foods taste better and K2 is a type of vitamin, but they are also common names for types of synthetic marijuana that are intoxicating, but also making many young people ill, according to a new study in Pediatrics. Military personnel have caught the urge as well.

Synthetic marijuana use is growing and dangerous

Walk into your neighborhood convenience store, gas station, or tobacco shop and you may be able to buy Blaze, Spice, or K2 along with your soda, bag of chips, and cigarettes. The synthetic cannabinoids are produced in illegal labs and can often easily get into the hands of adolescents and young adults, who can get more than they bargained for.

According to the authors of the Pediatrics article, users of synthetic marijuana are showing up in emergency rooms with symptoms that include restlessness, catatonia, extreme aggression, excessive sweating, agitation, and an inability to speak. There are other reports of halllucinations, delusions, and rapid heart beat.

The numbers are not insignificant, and they are rising. The latest figures from the American Association of Poison Control Centers show 6,959 calls regarding synthetic marijuana in 2011, and in the first two months of 2012 alone, there were already 1,261 calls.

Synthetic marijuana is sold in packets as potpourri, but people don’t buy it to make their houses smell fresh. Instead, the mixture of plant parts sprayed with various chemicals is smoked to get high, but those pleasant feelings can rapidly go wrong for many users.

Although authorities have attempted to ban synthetic marijuana, the drug makers keep one step ahead of the law by constantly changing the drug’s recipe, so one week a drug can be illegal, but the next new batch will not. This continuous change in the recipe of synthetic marijuana is another problem with the drug, because users never know what they are getting.

In fact, the ingredients listed on the package, which may list several traditional medicinal herbs, can be completely inaccurate, as laboratory tests have shown. Naturally, the chemicals used to treat the plant substances are not part of the label disclosure, and these toxins can be difficult to detect using standard drug tests.

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Synthetic marijuana in the military
Synthetic marijuana is also a problem in the military. An AP story from December 2011 noted that military officials had started testing troops and found more than 1,100 suspected users. In 2011, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigated more than 700 personnel, while the Air Force punished 497 of its own in 2011. The Army does not track investigations of synthetic marijuana, but the report noted 119 soldiers had been treated medically for the synthetic drug.

Because synthetic marijuana makers keep changing their recipe, detection of the drug is a challenge. According to Capt. JA “Cappy” Surette, a spokesperson for the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, although the military can calibrate its testing equipment, “underground chemists can keep altering the properties and make up to more than 100 permutations,” in addition to the more than 200 other chemicals used in the drug.

In the October 2011 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, Lt. Commander Donald Hurst, a fourth-year psychiatry resident at San Diego’s Naval Medical Center, reported on 10 cases of sailors (ages 21-25) who had smoked synthetic marijuana ranging from at least four times over a three-week period up to daily for 1.5 years. Eight of the patients had also used alcohol or marijuana along with synthetic marijuana.

Four of the patients had auditory hallucinations, two had visual hallucinations, nine had paranoid delusions, six had disorganized speech, seven had disorganized behavior, four had suicidal ideation, six had psychomotor retardation, and two had anxiety. Seven of the patients’ psychotic symptoms resolved between 5 and 8 days after hospital admission, while three had symptoms for more than 5 months.

Rising concerns about synthetic marijuana
Along with bath salts, another recent drug craze among young people, synthetic marijuana is a topic of rising concerns. According to a 2011 report from the Office of National Drug Control Policy concerning results of the Monitoring the Future study, use of synthetic marijuana among 12th graders was estimated at 11.4%, the second most frequently used illicit substance, after marijuana, among this class.

Researchers from the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC, who penned the new article, noted their rising concern about the potential long-term impact of using synthetic marijuana on a regular basis. The rapidly rising numbers of episodes of synthetic marijuana use reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers may be an indication of the growing problem as well as a source of important data.

American Association of Poison Control Centers
Associated Press, Synthetic marijuana use becoming a problem for US military. Dec. 30, 2011
Cohen J et al. Clinical presentation of intoxication due to synthetic cannabinoids. Pediatrics 2012 Mar 19. DOI:10.1542/peds.2011-1797
Hurst D et al. Psychosis associated with synthetic cannabinoid agonists: a case series. Am J Psychiatry 2011; 168;1119
Office of National Drug Control Policy

Image: Wikimedia Commons