Synthetic marijuana continues to scare, frustrate Nebraska cops and doctors

Samples of synthetic marijuana products offered online. (NET News graphic)
Products siezed in a police raid. (Photo courtesty Houston Texas Police)
Analysis of a chemical compound found in sythethic marijuana purchased in Nebraska. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
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September 25, 2013 - 6:30am

Parents and recreational drug users are being warned:  man-made products promising a high similar to marijuana may cause serious harm.  It is a recurring issue since ‘synthetic marijuana’ started appearing on the open market five years ago.


This fall the LaVista, Neb. Police Department saw a small, but disturbing trend.  Officers encountered three instances where they confiscated synthetic marijuana.  For a small town that was a real concern.  In one case, a pair of high school students were hospitalized due to the dangerous side effects of a brand known as “Crazy Clown.” (The teenagers are recovering.)

The appearance of the drugs is not limited to the suburban Omaha community.    

Across the region hospital emergency rooms report treating people suffering from the side effects of synthetic marijuana.  Health officials in Colorado issued warnings about a synthetic called “Spice” after 75 people were taken to Denver-area emergency rooms after smoking the product. Three people were believed to have died.   

Dr. Ronald Kirschner, the director of the Nebraska Regional Poison Control Center in Omaha said “there is reason to be concerned.”

Nurses staff the phones at the Regional Poison Control Center in Omaha (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Kirschner said these products, readily available from Internet vendors, aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  No one has tested their effect on humans.  As a result, he explained “you don’t really know what you are getting.  They don’t tell you what’s in them.  They put in them whatever (ingredients) they want to put in them.”

Synthetic marijuana isn’t marijuana at all, according to law enforcement officials who’ve investigated illegal sales of the product. 

“These are knuckleheads in some garage who are making these drugs,” according to Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning

Because the people making these products are “not some big drug company with all the fail-safes in place” to make sure it is safe, Bruning said synthetic marijuana sold over the Internet or in some stores is especially dangerous.   

“Some knucklehead is going to be high when he’s making it, put too much of X or Y in it and some kid is going to die,” Bruning said.

A lab analysis of a chemical recently detected in a synthetic marijuana product obtained in Nebraska.  (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Manufacturers, sometimes using garages or basements to process the product, start by drying a variety of different ground up plants.  They treat it with coated chemicals they’ve formulated, often using the work of legitimate chemical researchers who post their scientific studies on the Internet.  The research done in the hopes of creating medicines with properties similar to those in marijuana is instead used for recreational purposes, and with no testing to see if it is safe for human consumption.  

Christine Gabig, a crime lab chemist with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Forensic Science Unit, has analyzed dozens of samples of the synthetics.  She said while sellers may claim their products can produce a high similar to marijuana, these products are different.

“As you burn the plant material, it’s not the plant material causing the physiological effect on the users,” Gabig said.   “It’s the research chemical that’s added to the plant material.”

The first reports of adverse effects started showing up around the country in 2009.  Around that time products under the brand name K-2, Spice and Black Mamba became readily available from Internet vendors.  By 2009 the network of poison control centers around the country had received more than 5,000 calls about exposure to the drugs.

Sample of a synthetic marijuana product.  (Photo courtesy DEA)

The product, often sold in foil packaging with a zip top, usually has “a sweet, incense type odor,” Gabig said. “When you open this package and pour it out you’d see it looks like an incense material, its botanical material, shredded up colorful plants.” 

Some of the products are sold as incense and state “not for human consumption” on the package.  However the advertising often makes claims indicating users will experience a marijuana-like high.  (One company’s online blog boasts “K2 will get you 10 times more high than regular THC, so you smoke less to get the same effect.”)

When the synthetic marijuana is treated with an untested chemical formulation the side-effects can be terrifying according to Dr. Kirschner.

"They’re combative.  They’re actually fighting,” Kirschner said.  Emergency room nurses have witnessed “hitting, kicking, biting, thrashing around, where (the person under the influence) may become a danger to themselves or other people around them.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports other side-effects include racing heartbeat, nausea and vomiting, muscle spasms, seizures, and tremors, hallucinations  and suicidal thoughts.

“Smoking regular marijuana has been going on for a long time, so we kind of know what the expected effects are,” Kirschner said.   “With some of these synthetic cannabinoids we don’t know what is going on and we don’t know what to expect.” 

In 2012 The specialists at the Omaha-based poison control center were among the first in the United States to link sixteen mysterious cases of kidney failure in Wyoming with the synthetic marijuana the patients smoked just hours earlier.

“It’s often a game of catch up to figure out the latest synthetic cannabinoid,” Kirschner said. “What is its structure? What does it do?  What are the risks?”

Lawmakers have an equally difficult time keeping up with the new chemical mutations.  Nebraska has already revised its statutes a number of times to try and keep up.  (Read the current state law here)

“You know the problem with synthetic drugs is there is always some chemist who is trying to stay one step ahead of you,” said Attorney General Bruning.   “We try to be broad in the way we ban synthetic drugs.” 

Once again, Nebraska and other states may not be broad enough.

Last week, at the crime scene laboratory at the Douglas County Sheriff’s office, Gabig, the forensic chemist, reported to local law enforcement her tests indicated a new synthetic marijuana product had been treated with a previously unknown chemical.  The drug had been used by Nebraska high school kids hospitalized after smoking it.

It appeared the new formulation, while apparently dangerous, was not illegal under the recently re-written Nebraska drug laws. 

“This is the way it goes,” Gabig said.   "This is new not only to Nebraska but to the United States.”

Gabig and the state’s attorney general agree it is a complicated process to determine if each new chemical tweak falls inside or outside current state drug law. 

The other weapon at their disposal is public information, according to Bruning. 

“We’re trying very hard to tell parents, you got to stay on top of this with your kids,” Bruning said.  “This is not a joke; this is not a cheap high.  You’ve got to be careful and you shouldn’t be using this stuff.”

The reappearance of the synthetic marijuana products is especially frustrating since it comes after a dramatic decrease in the number of cases reported to poison control centers in the past 12 months. 

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