Anxiety envelopes you. You’re drenched in cold sweat. There’s a jackhammer pounding inside your skull. You begin hallucinating and your mind begins to betray you. The muscles in your face tighten. Your legs feel atrophied. Your heart rate blasts through you like someone shot a firehose into your veins. Then the paranoia grips you, and everyone is a monster trying to get you. You fight, you claw, you bite, you punch through glass. Then your body begins to shut down. Your brain goes first, swallowing you up into the darkness. Then your kidneys begin to fail. If you don’t get immediate help, you’ll be dead. You’ve been poisoned. This is you on synthetic marijuana.
Just an hour ago you were feeling good. Relaxed and mellow. Now, you’re doubled over, waiting to slip into oblivion.
While Florida has banned the drug — which can be found and bought easier than actual marijuana — it has been on a serious rise throughout the state lately. This even after authorities thought they had curbed it. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, it is estimated that 28,831 young adults with various complications have gone to the ER due to abuse of synthetic drugs since 2009. In the first three weeks of April, poison control centers in Florida received around 1,000 reports of patients overdosing on synthetic marijuana. And while that may seem like not a huge number, the real issue here is that it is nearly double the incidents reported from January through March. The trend is climbing at an alarming rate.
The reason for this, say experts, is because synthetic marijuana is easier to get. And because it’s evolving as a street drug.
“Synthetic marijuana is on the rise here in Florida mainly because the manufacturers of these substances keep changing the chemical components making it more difficult for law enforcement to identify them,” Wellness Resource Center Clinical Director, Dr. Sandra Betancourt, tells New Times. “More pressing is that these substances can be found anywhere on the street, including shops and on the internet.”
Synthetic marijuana, known as "spice" and sold under cool-sounding names like Yucatan Fire, K2, and Moon Rocks, has been marketed as a safe and legal alternative to weed for years. More alarmingly, the product has been sold at local gas stations right next to packets of gum and cans of Red Bull.
In 2013, the Florida House of Representatives banned 27 synthetic drugs, including synthetic weed. But the drug is tough to police because it’s ever changing.
Much like its sister synthetic drug flakka, synthetic marijuana is usually concocted in underground labs in China. It’s main ingredient is something called JWH-018, a sort of pain-killing chemical from the naphthoylindole family that targets the cannabinoid receptors in the brain. It supposedly gives you the same high as weed, but with insanely dangerous side effects.
The labs in China are constantly messing with the brew, finding different chemicals in order to duplicate the effects of JWH. And quality control in these labs is virtually non-existent. Basically, you’d be better off freebasing rat poison.
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In a package of spice you’ll find what looks like shredded plant material. How is it different from natural weed — aside from the horrible death it might cause you? Synthetic marijuana gives you a psychoactive high, enveloping all of the cannabinoid receptors in your brain like an aggressive rebel force sacking a helpless city. This leads to psychosis, paranoia, and aggressive behavior before it turns you into a writhing vegetable. It’s like marijuana on speed. It gives you a massive high, but then relentlessly refuses to let you go.
“The fact that it’s created from different chemical compounds, sometimes, even unknown chemicals, makes it very dangerous, and the effects are longer and stronger than marijuana,” Betancourt says. “The general public doesn’t think it’s dangerous or illegal.”
The state is trying to crack down on sales of synthetic marijuana as best as it can. In February, Attorney General Pam Bondi, along with several attorneys general throughout the U.S., sent a letter to the heads of BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Citgo, Shell, Sunoco, Valero, Marathon, and Phillips 66 to get their gas stations to stop selling synthetic marijuana products. And while local ordinances have been effective, the policing has become harder and harder.
"While retail sales were common several years ago, they are far fewer in Broward than before because of local ordinances aimed at retail sales and then state and federal bans on the first generation of those substances," Jim Hall, an epidemiologist at the Center for Applied Research on Substance Use and Health Disparities at Nova, tells New Time. "However, new products appear as old ones get banned.”