In bigger cities—especially ones with a substantial homeless population (the drug is cheap; you can get a hit for two dollars)—K2 has been causing a lot of adverse effects and even killing people. Some of the latest reports have shown that a batch in New York recently had rat poison in it. That might sound bizarre, but because there’s no established recipe for K2, it just is what it is. “Someone was seeking a new kind of high, maybe?” says Amarjot Surdhar, a psychiatrist who deals with substance abuse and addiction at Northwell Health in New York. “In an attempt to diversify some of the drugs people are selling, [k2] dealers or chemists may try to make various combinations of things.” Surdhar echoes something similar to what his peers are suggesting: The poison could tie up liver enzymes that metabolize other drugs, extending their effects. It could also just be malicious intent. What we do know is that K2 is making people sick. So why do people keep taking it?
There hasn’t been an accurate count of deaths from K2 since the uptick in usage took place within the last few years. Deaths are rare, but Maxwell says there’ve been at least a handful in several states, including her own (Texas). There’ve been a lot of poisonings though.
Neurological side effects of K2 can present as agitation, confusion, dizziness, lack of coordination, sedation, and even seizures, says Tegan Boehmer, scientist and acting Health Studies Chief in CDC’s emergency management, radiation, and chemical branch. “Psychiatric symptoms are hallucinations, psychosis, violent behavior, and suicidal thoughts.” There’s also sometimes, nausea, vomiting, and chest pain, which Surdhar has seen when he’s received patients in the ER. Some of the more serious effects are myocardial infarction (heart attack), tachycardia (fast heart rate), hypertension (high blood pressure), acute kidney injury, and even death.
Fantegrossi broke down some very complex but enlightening explanations of why. A little context: Drugs exert their actions as a consequence of binding to specific protein targets, or receptors. The ability of a drug to bind to a specific receptor is a measure known as “affinity,” and drugs with strong affinity bind better than those with weaker affinity. All drugs that exhibit efficacy at a specific receptor are known as “agonists” at that receptor. Drugs that induce a stronger response are referred to as “full agonists,” while drugs that only produce weaker responses are referred to as “partial agonists.”
It used to be available at corner stores, in colorful packaging clearly indicating what it was. It’s been a banned substance since 2012, and now tends to come in more covert packaging, Maxwell says, and it’s most often purchased online since store owner aren’t allowed to sell it. It’s marketed as “enhanced” or “natural,” Surdhar says, but “there’s nothing natural about it. They’re just deadly chemicals made in a lab. And it’s very difficult to track things online if people are not declaring the contents, or the contents in it are not illegal.”
Maxwell also says that around 20 percent of users report minor side effects that resolve quickly; 40 percent report more moderate ones that are prolonged; and 10 percent have been shown to exhibit symptoms that were life-threatening or resulted in significant residual disability that might be long-term.
Synthetic marijuana, otherwise known as K2 or Spice, is dried plant matter sprayed or coated with man-made hallucinatory substances that are created in an attempt to mimic THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana. Super fun and reassuring fact if you’ve tried it or are considering trying it: Each bag is a mystery melange of chemicals. “There really is no one ‘main ingredient,’” says William Fantegrossi, psychopharmacologist and K2 researcher at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. There are literally hundreds of synthetic cannabinoid drugs which can be found in these products.” The original compounds—first invented for research rather than to get high—are also totally different from what’s out on the street and online today.
“The most important thing to know is that the synthetics are absolutely not marijuana,” Fantegrossi says. “Any one of these things can happen the very first time you try one of these products because you don’t know what drug you’re getting, you don’t know how much is in there, and you don’t know how your own individual metabolism will handle it. The warnings you see from the CDC and NIH are not scare tactics. Be careful out there.”
Watch this from VICE:
“There’s nothing 'natural' about it. They’re just deadly chemicals made in a lab."