Dallas Police and television stations reported on Friday the treatment of 40 people over a 48-hour period for overdoses of what appears to be a synthetic marijuana product they are describing as K2.
Rebecca Lopez at WFAA-TV reported that emergency departments at Baylor University Medical Center and Parkland Hospital saw 30 patients on Thursday alone.
Dr. James E’tienne, emergency physician at Baylor was quoted as saying, “Several of them came in with similar symptoms of psychosis, altered mental status, abnormal behavior — ranged from very sedated to an agitated state.”
Scott Gordon at NBCDFW quoted Parkland emergency physician, Dr. Stacy Hail, as saying, “They’re very difficult to control. They actually have to be restrained.” Parkland treated nine patients on Thursday and another nine on Friday.
One type of synthetic marijuana product sold as Spice Diamond. These are herbal products sprayed with research chemicals made to investigate how brain receptors work. They have no been tested for safety in humans. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
While the cluster of ER visits in Dallas speak to a batch of K2 product having an unusually high dose or a more potent chemical, Gordon also reported that 15 people were treated for K2 overdoses in 200 miles away in the state capital of Austin.
These products are not marijuana but rather herbs that are sprayed with solutions containing one or more research chemicals that bind to the same brain receptors as the active constituents in marijuana, or cannabis. For this reason, they are more properly called synthetic cannabinoids. They continue to be sold under names such as K2, Spice, and Gorilla Dro Po-Po, among others.
The risks of these products are related to the fact that they have more intense effects and lack the constellation of psychoactive and calming chemicals naturally present in cannabis.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has been trying to keep up with clandestine chemists who scour the research literature to manufacture chemicals originally designed as research tools to investigate the properties of cannabinoid receptors, the sites at which the natural chemicals in marijuana act.
The DEA has progressively added groups of these chemicals for temporary assignment, then made permanent, to Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (see 2013 and 2014 announcements). Individual states have criminalized the manufacture, sales, possession and use of the products containing these substances.
I’ve been following this story since early 2010 at ScienceBlogs.com and on my blog for the American Chemical Society’s Chemical & Engineering News. This original explainer remains among the most popular pieces I have ever written. Even with posts that are three and four years old, I still accumulate a few comments every month from readers who’ve had very unpleasant experiences with these products.
Here’s one from just last week:
I smoked k2 and only k2 for about a year and a few months straight. When I was on it I was very aggressive, didn’t have the sense of right and wrong. K2 was all I cared about and it gave me weed highs most of the time, but then I also experienced bad trips where I was projectile vomiting and also had mini seizers. I would slur my words and look mentally retarded. I hallucinated on it once and saw a group of people where there wasn’t anyone but a friend and i.
Forbes health contributor, Melanie Haiken, has written several times on the topic here, with two posts receiving over 100,000 pageviews. Forbes Pharma & Healthcare contributor, Alice G. Walton, has also reported frequently on the negative effects of these products. While the true extent of synthetic cannabinoid use is not clear, readership and comments are suggestive of continued, widespread sales.
These products are particularly popular in the U.S. military and with individuals on probation as most urinary drug tests that detect marijuana compounds do not identify synthetic cannabinoids.
Most critical to physicians and law enforcement in the current episode in Dallas and Austin is to secure the specific batches of products implicated in these overdoses and submit them for analysis of the chemicals and their abundance in the products.
Although no patients were admitted for effects from this rash of overdoses, three Texas teenagers suffered heart attacks from these chemicals in 2011.
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