Former Auburn running back Mike Dyer testifies as a prosecution witness April 11, 2012, during the trial of former teammate Antonio Goodwin.
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Like countless other college basketball players, Lamar Jack couldn’t wait for the 2012 season to begin.
The redshirt freshman forward was working out with his Anderson (S.C.) University teammates last September, going through preseason conditioning drills, when something went terribly wrong.
After complaining of cramps and blurred vision, Jack collapsed. He was rushed to the emergency room, where his body temperature was extremely elevated.
Four days later, he died at the age of 19.
After an autopsy, Anderson County coroner Greg Shore told the Anderson Independent Mail that Jack’s death was the result of “acute drug toxicity (that) led to multiple organ failure.”
Toxicology tests revealed that Jack had ingested the chemical JWH-018, which is used to make synthetic marijuana.
“This drug certainly triggered this young athlete’s death,” Shore said, “and that is tragic.”
Synthetic marijuana, which was sold legally over the counter in Alabama until last year under such names as K2 and Spice, has become the latest front in the war on drugs waged by athletics organizations such as the NCAA and federal agencies such as the DEA.
“Poison center experts say these substances are among the worst they have ever seen,” said Rick Dart, the president of the American Association of Poison Control Centers. “People high on these drugs can get very agitated and violent, exhibit psychosis and severe behavior changes and have harmed themselves and others.”
‘Like a heroin high’
The National Center for Drug-Free Sport, which administers drug-testing programs for the NCAA and for more than 200 colleges and universities, first spotted synthetic marijuana on its radar about two years ago.
One of the center’s vice presidents, Andrea Wickerham, said it “crept into athletics a little more than a year ago” through reports from some of the center’s university clients.
“We were hearing from them what they were hearing from their student-athletes” about the use of synthetic marijuana on campus, Wickerham said. “The schools were asking us, ‘What do you know? What are you seeing?’ ”
Based on anecdotal evidence from the center’s clients, the effects of synthetic marijuana have ranged from increased heart rate and blood pressure, Wickerham said, to “horrible examples of seizures and convulsions.”
She added that part of synthetic marijuana’s danger is “it’s an illicit street drug. You don’t know what you’re buying. What’s really in it?”
Synthetic marijuana products consist of dried leaves from traditional herbal products that have been treated with chemicals, supposedly to mimic the effects of marijuana, but they can be much stronger.
“The high is not in the least like a marijuana high,” Wickerham said. “It’s like a heroin high or an Ecstasy high, in a bad way.”
Until the chemicals used to make these products were outlawed in more than 30 states, including Alabama, and banned by the DEA, they were available over the counter at retail outlets such as gas stations, convenience stores and tobacco shops and often marketed as herbal incense.
Synthetic marijuana made headlines in the SEC twice during the past academic year. Last October, LSU suspended three football players: defensive backs Tharold Simon and Tyrann Mathieu, who went on to be a Heisman Trophy finalist, and running back Spencer Ware.
Those players missed one game against Auburn after they tested positive for synthetic marijuana in a school-administered drug test, ESPN.com reported at the time. Wickerham said she talked to LSU officials who confirmed that report.
In April, former Auburn tailback Mike Dyer testified at the trial of former teammate Antonio Goodwin, who later was found guilty of armed robbery and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Dyer testified that, on the night of the robbery, he met Goodwin and co-defendants Shaun Kitchens and Dakota Mosley at a party at teammate DeAngelo Benton’s house and that the players were smoking Spice.
Dyer also testified that, during his two years at Auburn, he “consistently” smoked Spice and found it “way stronger” than traditional marijuana.
“Auburn’s not alone,” Wickerham said. “We’re seeing high numbers in terms of positive test results.”
Wickerham wouldn’t provide those numbers, but they came from a blind study of about 2,000 samples from student-athletes in all NCAA sports. That study is part of the research being done by the UCLA Olympic lab as the NCAA moves toward including synthetic marijuana as one of the street drugs for which it tests at NCAA championships.
The NCAA currently conducts drug testing at its championship events in all three divisions at least once every five years, and testing occurs at certain championships every year. The NCAA also tests about 11,000 Division I and II student-athletes in all sports at random throughout the year, but only the screening at championships tests for street drugs.
The NCAA added “synthetic cannabinoids (eg. Spice, K2, JWH-018, JWH-073)” to its list of banned street drugs — a list that includes but isn’t limited to marijuana and heroin — in 2011.
“I’m hopeful the NCAA will begin testing for it (at championships) in the fall of 2013,” Wickerham said. “The missing piece now is what does the lab recommend as the threshold level (for a positive test).”
Mary Wilfert, the NCAA’s associate director of health and safety, said it takes time to develop a drug-testing protocol in this case because synthetic marijuana “is not a standardized substance. There are many compounds that go into these products. We’re not testing for products. We’re testing for chemical substances.”
More than 90 percent of Division I schools conduct their own drug-testing programs. SEC schools already have begun testing their student-athletes for synthetic marijuana. Ten of the league’s 14 schools responded to multiple requests from The Birmingham News for basic information on the subject. Spokesmen for Kentucky and Vanderbilt responded but said their schools don’t reveal such medical information.
All eight schools that provided information — Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Texas A&M — said they test for synthetic marijuana and their penalties for a positive test are the same as for traditional marijuana. Those penalties vary from school to school.
Of the schools that responded, Alabama was the first to test for synthetic marijuana, beginning in the fall of 2010. Auburn began testing for it Aug. 1, 2011.
Texas A&M and Mississippi State were the only schools that responded to a question about the number or percentage of student-athletes who had tested positive for synthetic marijuana. They said they’ve each had one positive test.
Statistics from the American Association of Poison Control Centers suggest usage continues to grow in the general population. The AAPCC reported that the number of calls about synthetic marijuana use to poison centers in the United States grew from 2,906 in 2010 to 6,959 in 2011. Those centers had logged 3,372 such calls through June 30 of this year.
Using its emergency scheduling authority, the DEA prohibited the possession and sale of five specific chemical agents contained in synthetic marijuana in March 2011.
“This emergency action was necessary to prevent an imminent threat to public health and safety,” the DEA said.
In October 2011, the state of Alabama followed suit when Dr. Donald Williamson, state health officer, signed an emergency order making the possession or sale of chemical compounds typically found in synthetic marijuana substances unlawful.
Between October 2010 and October 2011, the Regional Poison Control Center at Children’s Hospital of Alabama reported receiving 101 calls from people exposed to K2 or Spice. Three victims were 6 to 12, 35 were teenagers and 32 were in their 20s.
“These substances have been wrongly presented as a safe and legal alternative to marijuana,” Williamson said. “We want the public to be aware of the toxic effects and other dangers associated with synthetic marijuana use.”
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama signed into law the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012, which specifically identified a number of synthetic cannabinoids and made their use, possession or distribution illegal.
Wickerham of the National Center for Drug-Free Sport said her organization and others like the NCAA have been playing catch-up on this problem. One reason student-athletes say they’ve used synthetic marijuana, in addition to it being legal until recently, was their belief that their schools didn’t test for it or that those tests couldn’t detect it.
The NCAA has educated its schools about the dangers of synthetic marijuana through newsletters and forums, but it still is gathering information on the subject.
Every four years, the NCAA conducts a drug-use survey of student-athletes in which they’re allowed to respond anonymously. About 20,000 completed surveys are returned. The most recent survey, in 2008-09, did not ask about the use of synthetic marijuana.
The next one, in 2012-13, will.
“There just seems to be an explosion in the last few years of people developing synthetic mood-altering drugs,” Wilfert said. “It’s not something we’d seen before.”