In 1984, a professor named John Huffman began researching endocannabinoid receptors—compounds that activate cannabinoid receptors in the human body. When people smoke marijuana, those receptors light up, causing users to feel high. Huffman, however, wasn't researching marijuana intoxication. He and his team at Clemson University were developing cannabinoids in an effort to aid research into multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDs and chemotherapy.
Fast forward 30 years and one of the compounds Huffman created—JWH-018—might be more familiar than its innocuous robotic name suggests: It's more commonly called synthetic marijuana. Huffman's research was hijacked, and as time has passed an increasing number of chemicals used for scientific research have met similar fates. The Drug Enforcement Administration has listed 27 compounds on its controlled substances list after linking them to synthetic marijuana. A quick look at a few of those compounds show just how unnatural the drug is: AB-FUBINACA has been found in bulk quantities of synthetic marijuana. UR-144 and XLR11 have been identified (combined) in more than 12,400 reports from state and local forensic drug laboratories.
Manufacturers spray the chemicals on organic material, package and market it by names such as Spice and K2. It's sold in colorful packaging in head shops and gas stations, labeled as incense that isn't for human consumption. The truth behind what's inside the packaging is complex and hard for medical officials and law enforcement authorities to pin down.
"The problem, the main issue, with this stuff, is there is no quality control and no consistency in packaging," San Antonio Police Department spokesman Javier Salazar said. "The way I've seen it marketed is as potpourri. And they'll put them in crazy packaging and give it a name like 'Magic Eight Ball' or 'Magic Carpet Ride.'"
The name might stay the same, but the compounds inside "Magic Eight Ball" can change from one week to the next. "People are buying the same brands and it may be a total mixed bag of chemicals that you are getting. It's very unpredictable due to quality and consistency," Salazar said.
According to police, the people who are selling synthetic weed are intentionally targeting a younger demographic. "The vast majority of people who are selling it know exactly what they are doing and who they are marketing to," Salazar said. "They are marketing to a younger crowd. We've seen instances where kids are saving up lunch money or allowance money."
Before 2011, people selling these designer drugs were completely free to do so. That year, the DEA labeled the chemical compounds identified in synthetic weed as controlled substances and law enforcement began to crack down on sellers. Last June, federal, state and local law enforcement officials arrested 18 people, including the owner of Best Foods #2 convenience store and Hang Ten Smoke Shop in San Antonio, on a charge of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute synthetic cannabinoids. In that sweep, authorities seized thousands of packages containing synthetic marijuana, cash and materials used to manufacture the chemicals.
Despite a statewide general ban on synthetic marijuana, more than 100 people overdosed in Texas last May during a five-day span. A little more than two weeks ago, 12 people were rushed to hospitals in Austin during a two-hour period after overdosing on synthetic marijuana. Trending data is starting to reveal just how dangerous the drug is.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the number of emergency room visits by patients suffering adverse and dangerous reactions to synthetic marijuana doubled between 2010 and 2011. In 2010, 11,406 people visited the ER because of adverse reactions to synthetic marijuana; that number jumped to 28,531 visits in 2011.
Alarmingly, ER trips by children aged 12 to 17 also doubled, from 3,870 visits in 2010 to 7,584 in 2011. Visits for adults aged 18 to 20 increased fourfold, from 1,881 visits in 2010 to 8,212 in 2011.
"The adverse effects of synthetic cannabinoids include severe agitation, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, tachycardia (racing heartbeat), elevated blood pressure, tremors, seizures, hallucinations, paranoid behavior, and nonresponsiveness," according to the SAMHSA report. "After regular consumption, withdrawal signs and symptoms have been observed. Death after use of synthetic cannabinoids has also been reported."
The report references a U.S. Department of Justice DEA source for the fatalities, but the link leads to a 404 error on the department's website. A search within the website turns up a PowerPoint presentation from 2013 that mentions "death after use," but doesn't provide any specifics. We were unable to pin down a definitive number of deaths from synthetic marijuana in the United States or Texas. Salazar, from the SAPD, couldn't document any local fatalities, but said, "it's plausible."
But there's a reason it's so difficult to tally the victims of synthetic marijuana. The manufacturers constantly vary the structure of the chemical compounds, making it difficult for the authorities to trace the toxicology. "Because products marketed as synthetic cannabinoids (e.g., 'Spice,', 'K2,' and hundreds of exotic brand names) contain various amounts of different ingredients or combinations that are different from each other, it is difficult to identify which adverse effects are caused by which synthetic cannabinoid compounds," the SAMHSA report states. "Additionally, it appears that the chemical structures of the psychoactive components of these products, as well as the composition of the herbal products themselves, is continually changing. There are also unpredictable contaminants in these products since they are manufactured illicitly." The SAMHSA report doesn't make this statement in reference to fatalities.
There may be a shortage of definitive data, but there is no dearth of horror stories and tragedies that authorities suspect are linked to synthetic marijuana.
In Texas, 19-year-old Dominique Tate died suddenly in 2010. His mother told the Dallas-Fort Worth CBS affiliate that he started using K2, a brand of synthetic marijuana, two months before his death. Health officials in Dallas confirmed to local media that they suspect his death was a result of synthetic marijuana use.
Douglas E. Morigeau, 61, from Dixon, Montana, wasn't a user. He and his wife were attacked in their home by a man named Nathan Lee William Calvert, who pleaded guilty to murder (he stabbed Morigeau 54 times) and attempted murder (he slashed Morigeau's wife's throat), the Missoulian reported in 2013. Calvert is serving two consecutive life sentences. The paper obtained multiple court documents and police affidavits referencing Calvert's admission of synthetic marijuana use. According to the Missoulian, Calvert went to Morigeau's house seeking help because of an adverse reaction to synthetic marijuana that included extreme paranoia.
Jeremy Chissel, 32, died in a fatal crash in Indiana in a car driven by 24-year-old Karissa Campbell, who was under the influence of synthetic marijuana at the time of the crash and was sentenced to eight years in prison. The Associated Press reported that Campbell told authorities she and Chissel were regular users of the drug.