Fake weed, real consequences

By Gregory Cappis

Getting high on synthetic marijuana could boost not only your spirits, but also your chance of suffering a heart attack.

Dr. Colin Kane, pediatric cardiologist at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, studied three cases of teenage boys who all suffered heart attacks after smoking the fake cannabis known as “K2,” “Spice” or herbal incense in early 2011. He said he couldn’t prove that the chemical compounds that produce a marijuana-like high caused the heart attacks, but said “the timing is just very suspicious.”

In Chicago, the synthetic drug can be purchased at a variety of stores, including gas stations, food marts and smoke shops. On Dec. 14, “Max’s Law” will go into effect, which will prohibit the sale of the laboratory-produced drugs that “mimic the effects of marijuana.” Violators will be subjected to a $1,000 fine if caught selling the product, but there is no legislation prohibiting possession of the designer drug.

The ban was dubbed “Max’s Law” following the death of a teenager in west suburban Aurora. The 19-year-old suffered hallucinations, paranoia and a panic attack after smoking the synthetic substance sold as Potpourri. While in this state, he got behind the wheel and sped 100 mph into a house.

The physical effects Max suffered correlate to Kane’s study. He said kids have had chest pains, hallucinations, seizures and heart attacks.

“It is very uncommon for a teenager to have a heart attack,” Kane said. “It’s pretty common for teenagers to get chest pains, but it’s really uncommon for that pain to be caused by a heart problem.”

Synthetic marijuana is affecting thousands of kids because it cannot be detected on a standard urine drug test, making it popular among adolescents, Kane said. The chemicals in it produce a similar high to that of traditional marijuana, although it has quite the opposite aftereffect of medicinal marijuana. The chemicals developed to imitate marijuana and other ingredients added to the original compound are sending kids to hospitals after smoking the substance.

John Huffman, research professor of organic chemistry at Clemson University, developed the drug 15 years ago while conducting research funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. He said it was created to research the relationship between the chemical structure and the biological activity of substances known as cannabinoids, the active compounds in marijuana.

“I want to stress that these compounds were not meant for human consumption,” Huffman said. “Their effects in humans have not been studied, and they could very well have toxic effects. They absolutely should not be used as recreational drugs.”

Chicago is the largest city in the U.S. to outlaw the sale of the drugs. Last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration enacted a nationwide ban on

synthetic marijuana.

“By [banning the sale of synthetic marijuana], we hope to close the door on the creation of new products,” said Alderman Matt O’Shea (19th Ward).

The new law comes on the heels of a potential ordinance that would lessen the punishment for people in possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana, as reported by The Chronicle on Nov. 7. The proposal would ticket offenders with fines and community service instead of jail time, as specified under the current law.

Kane said that recently, more people have complained of symptoms after smoking the synthetic marijuana versus the traditional substance.

“It seems all the reports coming out would suggest that these bring many more side effects than traditional marijuana,” he said. “People have to know that there are serious health consequences to using them.”