TOPICS > Health

What’s in that synthetic drug? An unknown grab-bag of toxic chemicals

December 22, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
The synthetic drug Spice is known as "fake pot," but its effects are completely different from marijuana. The hard-to-detect substances are often made in foreign facilities with an ever-changing cocktail of chemicals, meaning you can never be sure of what you're taking. This year, poison control hotlines have seen a record number of calls across the country. William Brangham reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tonight, we have a story on the rise of the drug synthetic marijuana, commonly known as Spice or K2.

This year has seen a record number of calls to poison control regarding the substance, and law enforcement around the country are learning how to cope with the unpredictable, dangerous drug.

We now learn more about this deadly cocktail from “PBS NewsHour” correspondent William Brangham.

MAN: Tonight, a local teen’s personal account of his addiction to the synthetic drug K2.

MAN: But this legal weed can have extreme, dangerous medical side effects.

MOLLY: I hit it two times.

MAN: Wrappers that look just like this.

MOLLY: And then I don’t remember anything.

WOMAN: Just as dangerous as pot, cocaine or meth, but one scary difference: Your kids can buy it at local stores.

MOLLY: I remember, I woke up in the hospital. My throat hurt so bad, and I was like, why is my throat hurting? And that was because they had to put a tube down my throat, because I couldn’t breathe.

WOMAN: Synthetic marijuana.

MOLLY: Then my mom told me what happened, and, apparently, I had a seizure at the park.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Sixteen-year-old Molly is a resident at the Mountain Manor Treatment Center in Baltimore, and she’s here because of her experience using so-called synthetic marijuana, or what they call fake pot.

MAN: Synthetic marijuana comes with a quick and powerful high, but it comes with a price.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: These drugs have been in the news a lot lately, but, despite their street name, they’re not at all like actual marijuana.

DR. KAMA TILLMAN, Howard University Hospital: Even that the term says synthetic marijuana, it’s not marijuana. The effects are completely different.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Dr. Kama Tillman works the emergency room at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C., and he’s seen a surge in the number of patients coming through his doors suffering ill effects from these synthetic drugs.

DR. KAMA TILLMAN: They’re belligerent. They’re wild. Their body’s just moving around, but they can’t control it, and requires maybe people to kind of help keep them calm, so that they don’t harm themselves or harm anybody else. You get a lot more people who get that agitation, the psychosis, the paranoia, even convulsions, and even in some cases death from this drug.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: There were at least 15 deaths from synthetic drugs in the first five months of this year, and experts stress the difficulty of tracking the harm from these unfamiliar substances.

There were also a record number of calls to poison control centers, at least 7,000 so far this year, specifically related to synthetic drugs.

DR. MARILYN HUESTIS, National Institute on Drug Abuse: I think this is the emerging face of drug abuse for the future.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Dr. Marilyn Huestis is a toxicologist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and she and her team study the chemical makeup of synthetic drugs.

DR. MARILYN HUESTIS: The big problem is, new drugs come out, and they’re very potent, up to 100 times as potent as cannabis.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: A hundred times as potent?

DR. MARILYN HUESTIS: Up to. Some are 50 times. Some are 100 times, the most potent ones.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And she says they’re often made in foreign facilities, with an ever-changing cocktail of chemicals.

DR. MARILYN HUESTIS: It’s like taking a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and throwing it up in the air and having to put it back together without a picture. That’s what we’re trying to do.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Synthetic marijuana was originally created for research purposes in the 1990s by a chemist named John Huffman. But manufacturers soon realized they could take Huffman’s chemical recipe, spray it onto chopped-up plants and then sell it to consumers.

With brand names like K2, and Spice and Scooby Snax, these synthetic drugs were originally sold in gas stations and smoke shops as a — quote, unquote — “legal alternative” to marijuana. But as evidence of the drug’s harms grew, public officials began cracking down.

Some cities, like Washington, D.C., have been revoking the licenses of retailers caught selling the drugs. D.C. has also mounted a big ad campaign to scare kids away from the drugs.

ACTOR: It’s like we’re a bunch of lab rats injecting unknown and harmful chemicals into our bodies just to get a quick high. And they make a quick profit at our expense.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Dr. Marc Fishman treats adolescent addictions at the Mountain Manor Center, and he says another reason why synthetics took off several years ago is that they’re hard to detect.

DR. MARC FISHMAN, Addiction Psychiatrist: One of the issues that I am sure you have heard is that they don’t show up well in urine drug tests. So, one of the advantages to some people is that they can get away with it.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You can get high and not get busted.

DR. MARC FISHMAN: Get high and not busted. Some of the kids will call it probation weed.

GARRETT: I first heard about it in high school. So, my buddies were doing it, and I was smoking weed at the time, so they told me that there was something called synthetic weed that didn’t come up on like drug tests. My parents were always on me. So, I remember the first time I tried it, I was in my buddy’s basement, and you know, just — it made me crazy.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Dr. Fishman says that this puzzling mix of chemicals, while alarming to researchers, can actually be appealing to adolescents.

DR. MARC FISHMAN: So, telling a young person, you don’t know what you’re getting, be careful, your brain might explode, doesn’t change the momentary thrill seeking where they’re so…

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That may sound like a pitch for the drug.

DR. MARC FISHMAN: Exactly, exactly.

MOLLY: I didn’t look it up. I didn’t search about it. I was like, this is going to get me high. That’s — that’s really all you’re thinking about.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The spread of synthetics has also caused challenges for law enforcement. Andrew Struhar is acting lieutenant of the narcotics unit of the Washington, D.C., police.

LT. ANDREW STRUHAR, Narcotics Unit, Washington D.C. Police: Two, three years ago, this was a legal substance, you know.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You could just buy it in a store.

LT. ANDREW STRUHAR: And it wasn’t scheduled by the federal government, so, therefore, it wasn’t a narcotic, really. It had a narcotic effect, but it was legal to purchase, legal to possess, legal to use.

And, you know, a lot of agencies, whether they be regulatory, law enforcement or in government legislature, are trying to catch up with, you know, what these products are.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All 50 states have now outlawed synthetic drugs in some way, but the problem is, manufacturers keep changing the chemical makeup of the drugs to try and skirt the laws and claim their products aren’t technically illegal. It becomes this never-ending cat-and-mouse game.

Now, look, this one says, complies with Senate Bill 3187 and House Bill 1175, legal schedule. This is claiming it’s legal.

LT. ANDREW STRUHAR: Right. And they do it typically on the back, as you can see on the back. They go through all their disclaimers, and it says right on there disclaimer. And if you look at…

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: “Sold as incense only, not for human consumption.”

LT. ANDREW STRUHAR: It’s designed specifically for aromatic potpourri use. I mean, nobody sells potpourri in 3.5 gram packets.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It’s not just individual sales. In a sign of the growing scale of these operations, officials in Washington, D.C., recently seized 265 pounds of synthetics from a D.C. warehouse. It was one of the biggest busts of its kind, a total street value of $2.3 million, according to police.

And as this formerly legal drug retreats underground, those who use it have also been changing. Police and clinicians note an apparent decrease in use among young and middle-class users, and a rise among vulnerable groups like the poor and the homeless, proof to experts that the threat of these drugs is far from over and the dangers still unknown.

DR. MARILYN HUESTIS: It’s a major problem. And we don’t know. All these people who are trying this now, what is this doing to their brains? What’s it going to be like in five years, 10 years?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Because we just don’t know the answers to those…

DR. MARILYN HUESTIS: We don’t know. We don’t know. We don’t have the beginning of answers.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Meanwhile, the questions just continue to pile up.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham in Washington, D.C.