In an attempt to get ahead of the curve on a burgeoning public health crisis officials in Jackson, Mississippi have issued a dire warning about the dangers of synthetic marijuana. While the designer drug has not as of yet turned up in the city, civic leaders believe it is only a matter of time and are attempting to get the word out before anyone falls victim to this latest example of cutthroat entrepreneurship.
The product being marketed in clubs, on college campuses and on street corners these days as "synthetic marijuana" may contain some actual synthetic cannabinoids (THC, the compound in marijuana that produces the high) or it may not. In either case, it presents a significant health hazard to those foolhardy enough to use it. Often sold under the name "spice" first came to the attention of public health officials over a decade ago when people began showing up in emergency rooms in places like New York City suffering from a variety of maladies they ascribed to smoking pot. Since then the drug has steadily gained in popularity mostly because it promises an incredible high for a fraction of the cost of real marijuana.
The active ingredient in it, (the aforementioned synthetic THC) was actually created in the laboratory more than 2 decades ago by a chemist with a lot of time on his hands and nothing much better to do. He synthesized the fake THC, published a paper on it, made the ‘recipe’ available to anyone who wanted it and went back about his business. Not much happened until after the turn of the century when some enterprising dealers decided they would put the free recipe to good use and create a bargain basement alternative to natural weed.
The problem with synthetic weed is essentially two-fold. On the one hand, the "real" fake THC is up to 85 times more potent than the THC that's found in actual marijuana. This incredible potency has a habit of overwhelming the unsuspecting who wind up little more than jibbering, agitated zombies who then make their way to emergency rooms to find help.
The other aspect of the problem involves those unscrupulous lowlifes who, in search of a quick buck, sprinkle rat poison onto any old type of crushed, dried leaf and sell it as synthetic marijuana. The people who fall for this ruse often wind up bleeding from the nose and eyes, vomiting blood and finding blood in their urine and stools. In more than a few cases such unfortunates have died as a result of being poisoned in this fashion.
Because the fake synthetic weed is typically produced in large batches and sold throughout towns and city neighborhoods in a short period of time cases of poisoning tend to involve large numbers of people. A recent case in Brooklyn, for instance, saw 25 people from the same neighborhood hospitalized in a single evening. Another case in Chicago saw more than 100 people wind up in the hospital at roughly the same time with 4 of them dying from the effects of the poison. And the list goes on and on. This is why officials in Jackson have decided to get out in front of the issue and try to prevent a health crisis by warning anyone who will listen to the dangers of synthetic weed.
Because most of the large scale incidents involving synthetic marijuana have occurred in urban areas, the discourse has until recently tended to focus on it being a kind of poor person's problem. But a couple of other high profile cases have served notice that synthetic marijuana is a problem we all need to be aware of.
In October of 2015 Derrick Coleman, a fullback on the Seattle Seahawks football team was involved in a hit and run accident during which another driver was injured. Coleman emerged from his vehicle after the collision appearing "aggravated, delirious and incoherent" according to a number of witnesses. He then fled the scene barefoot without calling the police or otherwise reporting the incident. When police arrived, they searched his vehicle and found a packet of "spice" and other drug paraphernalia. Coleman was eventually tracked down and later plead guilty to a number of charges. This highly regarded, highly paid professional athlete with no history of trouble was promptly dumped by the Seahawks and hasn't played in the NFL since.
A year later in 2016 Chandler Jones - another first string, NFL all-star who played for the Champion New England Patriots - walked into a police station near his home partially dressed and disoriented in the middle of the night and asked for medical assistance. Police summoned paramedics who performed what they characterized as “advanced life support” on Jones. His home was subsequently searched and synthetic marijuana found. Jones was traded by the Patriots a few months later as a direct result of the incident.
Synthetic marijuana presents a vexing problem for law enforcement because of the synthesized nature of its active ingredient. As soon as the chemicals involved are moved to the list of controlled substances, enterprising chemists simply tweak the mix and introduce a new variant that is not illegal. When that too gets moved to the list of controlled substances another new, legal variant is created and so on. As a result about the only approach that makes sense is to do what the officials in Jackson have done, and that's to try to educate people about the dangers before it's too late.
While it's not likely to bring a complete end to the problem the public service announcement strategy may dissuade enough people from risking their health that the situation can be contained while law enforcement looks for a more permanent solution. In the meantime, synthetic weed is doing little to harm the appeal of the real thing.