“I smoked it that night and then soon after it caused me to have multiple seizures,” said Towler, 20, who lives in Lakeland.
Although the compounds found in synthetic marijuana have been around for a long time, they have somehow found their way out of the research lab and into the hands of people who modify them and make them into more dangerous drugs, said Dr. Ruben Baler, National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“They keep evolving because they are easily modified, making them much more powerful and potent than the most powerful strains of THC,” Baler said. THC is the compound in marijuana plants that causes psychological effects.
Towler said he started smoking synthetic marijuana, also known as “K-2” or “spice” on the streets, when he was put on probation after leaving the scene of an accident last January.
“Only reason I would smoke it was because I couldn’t do anything else,” he said, adding that he used it as an alternative to regular marijuana and was given random drug tests.
Towler was at home in June when he smoked the spice that could have killed him.
“My grandpa found me unresponsive on the floor and he was on his way out (the door),” he said. “If he wouldn’t have checked on me, I wouldn’t be here.”
Towler said he was taken to Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center in June where he was placed in an induced coma for five days because he couldn’t stop having seizures.
He awakened on the fifth day unable to speak and unaware of where he was. Doctors told him it was most likely the synthetic marijuana that put him there.
Alfred Aleguas Jr., managing director of the Florida Poison Information Center in Tampa, said the center has seen an increase in the number of calls about spice reactions over the years, with 7,779 exposures reported nationally from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2015, by the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
“We see this as a public health issue,” Aleguas said. “It may be illegal but you can get it under the counter at gas stations; it’s still pretty readily available.”
In 2010, the poison center received four spice-related calls. That number has increased by 600 percent, with 28 calls in 2015.
“We are trying to get a handle on this because we do see it as a growing problem,” he said, adding that the number of calls the center has received does not reflect the number of people experiencing the dangerous effects of synthetic cannabinoids, which he says is much higher.
Because each batch of synthetic cannabinoids has different compounds, some with multiples in a single batch, those who use it have no way of knowing what they are getting.
“You could have smoked the same stuff a ton of times but will get a more potent batch one time and be in trouble,” Aleguas said. “It really is just like playing Russian Roulette.”
The compounds, which were originally developed by John W. Huffman to aid in research for multiple sclerosis, attach to the CB1 and CB2 receptors or cannabinoid receptors in the brain, and bind more tightly than regular THC, the compound found in marijuana.
“THC reacts to them not so strongly and is relatively harmless,” Aleguas said about the effects of marijuana versus synthetic cannabinoids. “Marijuana is considered a fairly benign, recreational drug but the compounds found in different strains of synthetic cannabinoids can cause significant adverse effects.”
Those effects include severe agitation, anxiety, rapid heart beat, nausea, vomiting, seizures, acute kidney injury, blood pressure issues, stroke, intracerebral bleeding, change in heart rhythm and psychotic events.
“These are significant symptoms and what is really scary is the general feeling people have that they (synthetic cannabinoids) aren’t that big of a deal,” Aleguas said.
Baler agreed, saying the effects synthetic cannabinoids can cause are dangerous but they also vary from person to person.
“A wide variety of individuals can have very different effects or consequences from the compounds,” he said.
Baler added that the use of the synthetic cannabinoids can create a distorted perception of reality, leading to lethal behavior or suicidal thoughts.
“Anything that affects your performance can affect your life,” he said. “Some of the compounds are like THC and can cause elevated mood and relaxation but some are more potent. They are like a family and some work less, some work harder, and those that work harder combine more tightly and have a profound and dangerous effect.”
Because the calls to the poison center and the number of people, especially teenagers, using synthetic cannabinoids are increasing, Aleguas said the poison center is taking initiatives to find out which compounds are causing the most dangerous effects.
When users are admitted to the hospital, a urine test is administered to determine which compounds were used.
“When people smoke marijuana they will feel the effects for about six to eight hours and then it will wear off but when someone smokes spice it could leave them in the hospital,” he said.
Aleguas said they have learned certain compounds, like XLR-11, are thought to have caused an inordinate number of young people to have strokes.
“There was a 20-year-old who now has to learn how to walk, and read and talk all over again,” he said. “The effects can be just devastating.”
Aleguas said those who use synthetic cannabinoids are those who are traditionally drug tested such as military personnel, high school students, athletes or those in the penal system because the compounds often go undetected by traditional drug tests.
“They usually choose the synthetic cannabinoids as an alternative to marijuana,” he said.
Huffman, the chemist who developed the synthetic cannabinoid compounds, advocates for the legalization of marijuana so that people will stop using the synthetic strains.
He has been quoted saying that it is “foolish” for people to use the compounds recreationally and that they have dangerous effects on the human brain unlike THC.
Huffman has said that the decriminalization of marijuana would diminish the appeal of its more dangerous alternative.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd disagrees with Huffman, saying that legalizing marijuana in an effort to get rid of another dangerous drug is “ridiculous.”
“I can tell you from spending my entire adult life in this career that most of the devastating things I have seen can all be traced back to the use of dangerous drugs and that’s why as a government we have determined they should be illegal,” he said, adding that the families of drug abusers are the ones who truly suffer.
Judd said the Sheriff’s Office recognized synthetic cannabinoids as a dangerous criminal compound when they first became popular in 2010 and that he personally wrote hundreds of letters to merchants, telling them it was against the law.
“Almost without fail stores quit selling it in this county and the handful that didn’t were arrested,” he said.
Judd said what is disconcerting to him is that they are still being sold and used after the public has seen the possible medical reactions.
“A percentage of people who will try or u`se anything to become intoxicated or stoned think it will never happen to them or don’t care,” Judd said.
Judd said he thinks synthetic marijuana is a fad that will “burn itself out,” adding that if users don’t stop on their own, they will stop when it kills them.
Towler disagrees, saying he knows how widely it is used and that it’s not an easy habit to kick.
“I have buddies that continue to smoke it now even after knowing what happened to me,” Towler said. “I know of multiple people who smoke it every day because it’s highly addictive.”
Baler said research has proven that the compounds in synthetic cannabinoids are addictive and can lead to chronic and uncontrolled use.
Withdrawal symptoms for regular users include headaches, depression, anxiety and irritability. Most of those were the reasons Towler said he used synthetic marijuana to begin with.
“I want people to know how dangerous it is and that it is something they shouldn’t mess around with,” Towler said. “It’s a serious problem and it’s not worth it.”