Brian Alexander, TODAY
Connor Reid Eckhardt was just 19 when he died after using what scientists and doctors call a “synthetic cannabinoid,” but most everybody else calls “spice”, “K2” or any of half a dozen other names.
Eckhardt unlikely knew just how dangerous this so-called synthetic marijuana can really be, but emergency rooms and forensic labs all over the world are well-acquainted with the risks because they see the results every day.
“It’s a misnomer to even call it synthetic marijuana,” clinical toxicologist Dr. Aaron Schneir, clinical professor of emergency medicine with the University of California San Diego Health System told TODAY. Despite the long history of marijuana use, E.R. visits due to smoking pot are rare, he said. “But with synthetic cannabinoids there has been an explosion of visits over the past few years and they haven’t even been around very long.” Here are a few reasons why:
There’s no one drug called 'spice.'
As Dr. Julie Holland, a New York City psychiatrist and expert on illegal drugs, told NBC News last year, “there are a lot of research chemicals around now, lots of white powders, more than there has ever been.” Spice could be any one of dozens of chemical compounds, many manufactured in clandestine Chinese, Eastern European or American labs where quality control is not the prime concern of the makers.
As the name implies, synthetic marijuana is supposed to hit the cannabinoid receptors on brain cells to produce a high. But comparing spice to natural marijuana is like comparing a BB gun to an M-16. Last year, when scientists publishing results in the journal Neuropharmacology compared two newer forms of spice, XLR-11 and UR-144, to the compound found in cannabis—delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC–they found that “the potency of both compounds was several fold greater than 9-THC.”
In February, the Drug Enforcement Administration registered four newer synthetic cannabinoids as Schedule I drugs, meaning those caught manufacturing, handling or distributing them could face serious jail time. But DEA has issued such notices every time a slightly different chemical formulation of spice emerges. As DEA spokesperson Rusty Payne told NBC News in 2012, “trying to keep up is like 'playing whack-a-mole.' ” Plus, the drugs, found in products claimed to be “incense” or “potpourri,” can simply be ordered over the Internet or obtained from convenience stores and head shops whose proprietors may or may not know what’s really in them.
Spice is toxic.
Last month, the San Francisco division of the California Poison Control System reported that a man and his dog were poisoned by “Crazy Monkey,” or PB-22, another synthetic marijuana chemical. The man suffered convulsions both then and three months later, when he again wound up in an ER with seizures. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on kidney damage incurred by spice users in multiple states.
Spice is meant to act in the brain, and it does, but not always in the way users hope. It can cause anxiety, convulsions, hallucinations, agitation, combativeness, stupor. This month, for example, the first report of driving under the influence of spice was published in the Journal of Forensic Science. A California driver was picked up after an accident with “blank stare and mellow speech, with a barely audible voice.” And last month, there was a spate of spice-related hospital admissions in New York City.
Spice users have no idea what they’re really using.
It’s not just that the chemicals are created in sketchy labs, it’s also that there is no way to tell if what somebody is smoking is really a synthetic marijuana in the first place or if it’s mixed with other, unknown compounds. As Japanese scientists reported in 2013, spice products they examined were mixed with other designer drugs including tryptamine, a chemical sometimes found in so-called street “mushrooms.”
The family of Connor Eckhardt is not alone in their grief.
Spice can, and does, kill. In January of 2014, a lab in Indianapolis, Indiana, reported that over a four-month period from July through October of 2013, it looked at samples from four deaths and found PB-22, yet another synthetic cannabinoid, in all four cases. Three of those four died abruptly, like Eckhardt. One died after a “rapidly deteriorating hospital course.