By Jennifer Pierson, MPH, Senior Specialist, Environmental Health, APHL
Synthetic cannabinoids (aka “K2” or “Spice”) have infiltrated the “fake pot” market and caused quite a stir in states and cities across the country. Most notably, after extensive research by the Arkansas public health lab and other health agencies in that state, K2 was banned there. Now the DEA has banned these chemicals as a Schedule 1 substance effective March 1, 2011. While the synthesizers and dealers of these substances are claiming them to be safe and “effective” without the side effect of a positive drug test, as a public health professional and skeptic, I want to know the truth behind the risks of these synthetic drugs.
When I think of a synthetic substance or a substitute for the real thing, items like margarine, spam, canned cheese and sugar substitutes come to mind. While most of these things are not necessarily harmful short-term, do you really want to ingest them?
Levels of harm are kicked up significantly when it comes to synthetic drugs. Some of the adverse health effects associated with K2 include agitation, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, elevated blood pressure, seizures, hallucinations and more. Many of the side-effects of K2 have resulted in countless emergency rooms visits all across the nation.
The ban instituted by the DEA will only last for one year with a possible six-month extension. The US Department of Health and Human Services will conduct human health effects studies during this time period. Regardless of the DEA’s decision at the end of the study, synthetic cannabinoids are not going away anytime soon and will continue to pose a public health threat. Based on anecdotal and scientific evidence I’ve read, K2 is definitely harmful.
In the meantime, the Arkansas public health lab is working to develop analytical methods to detect K2 both in the actual drug sample and the metabolites in people. They are collaborating with local universities, hospitals, CDC and the DEA to develop such methods to test for K2. They are also developing community outreach programs to educate potential and current users of the risks involved.