Use of synthetic marijuana among U.S. teens continues to rise

When people who are not familiar with the product hear the phrase “synthetic marijuana,” they often conjure up images of genetically engineered pot plants growing in a laboratory somewhere.

The reality is synthetic marijuana is not actually marijuana, but a mixture of herbs and chemicals which mimic the high created from smoking pot.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH) states synthetic marijuana is often labeled as offering a “natural” high, however chemical analysis shows the main active ingredients are synthetic, or created through a chemical process.

The use of synthetic marijuana—also known as K2, Spice, Skunk, Moon Rocks, Potpourri, Yucatan Fire, and fake weed—among teenagers continues to grow.

Sixteen-year-old Emily Bauer from Cypress, Texas, had a history of occasional marijuana use, but on December 16th, 2012, her family prepared for her final moments as she lay in a hospital bed after two weeks of ICU care. Emily was admitted to the facility after smoking a form of synthetic marijuana labeled “potpourri” she had her friends purchased from a gas station.

Emily’s father, Tommy Bryant, told KTSM News he knew his daughter was a marijuana smoker, but he never anticipated something so serious would happen.

“Had I thought that there was any chance that she could have been hurt by this stuff, I would have been a lot more vigilant. I had no idea it was so bad,” Bryant told KTSM News.

The danger associated with synthetic marijuana lays in each brand’s unknown effects. In an effort to control the use of synthetic marijuana products, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) designated the 5 active chemicals most commonly found in the products as Schedule I controlled substances. As a Schedule I substance, it is illegal to buy, sell, or possess the chemicals. NIH indicates the regulations pushed synthetic marijuana makers to use alternative chemicals not regulated by the DEA, chemicals which have a high potential for abuse and no medical benefit.

“These drug manufacturers slightly change the chemical compound, and it becomes a different substance that’s not covered by the law,” said NCSL policy specialist Alison Lawrence to KTSM News. “That’s why in 2011 and 2012, we saw the states enacting these broader language bans.”

Health risks of synthetic marijuana

Synthetic marijuana is sold in places like gas stations and convenience stores (Shutterstock photo)
The health risks associated with synthetic marijuana, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, include:

Extreme nervousness
Racing heartbeat
Elevated blood pressure
Dilated pupils
With each batch of synthetic marijuana potentially different than the next, there is currently no way to know how use of the products will affect an individual. Approximately 11 percent of high school seniors have stated they used a synthetic marijuana product, and Spice and its companion products are responsible for sending as many as 11,000 people to the emergency room in a given year.

As for Emily Bauer, her hospital stay included a medically-induced coma and emergency surgery to reduce pressure in her brain. While she survived the procedure, doctors cautioned the family her outlook was bleak, and parts of her brain had been badly damaged. She was taken off life support four days before her 17th birthday.

Emily pulled through, however, waking up on her own, and her family indicates her recovery process had been long and difficult. While she recognizes her family’s voices, she is just starting to be able to move her arms and legs. The young woman was transferred to TIRR Memorial Hermann rehab hospital in January where she will continue to recover.

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