The media is finally acknowledging a growing trend in drug use amongst teens and adults. Synthetic Marijuana Usage Alarms American Pediatricians. The article outlines what many of use in the chemical dependence treatment field have seen for the past few years. I will say that it seems the problems associated with synthetic cannabis are getting worse. Over the last year I have received at least one phone call a day from an upset parent about their teenage son or daughter who is behaving erratically. The conversation usually follows with the parent disclosing, “and Julie smokes this stuff called spice. What is this? Where do they get this stuff from?” My answer typically stuns the parent–”The gas station.”
The calls I receive from parents are typically about a child whose behaviors have become so erratic and disruptive that the parent is scared and considering hospitalization. There are reports that the use of synthetic cannabis have led to psychotic like episodes. When used in combination with other legal drugs like Adderall, the effect can be prolonged manic episodes. Anecdotally my clients report upsetting mood swings and have levels of anxiety.
I learned about synthetic cannabis from a drug court client. She was heroin dependent in partial remission but was smoking spice regularly since it was not detectable. Needless to say she relapsed on the heroin shortly after her disclosure. Because of her I started asking different questions of my court ordered clients. It was amazing how many clients were using the synthetics. Their belief was it is okay since it is “only” like marijuana, and the court cannot test for it.
Our attitude toward the use of drugs has shifted dramatically over the past decade. Marijuana is heralded as a miracle cure all. The use of cannabis has filtered into every inch of our pop culture. In session with my clients I have heard hundreds of times that marijuana isn’t even a drug. So with the creation of synthetic cannabinoids, the psychoactive ingredients in cannabis, a new product found it’s way into the market place and effectively into our junior and senior high schools.
When the drug first came on the market in the mid 2000′s it was believed that the euphoric sensation created from smoking spice was the result of combining different natural herbs. It was discovered that the manufactures of the natural incense where spraying a chemical, the synthetic cannabis, on to the product. It turned out to be not so natural.
Initially there were only a few varieties found on the market. Posh, Spice, and K-2 were the most popular varieties. The federal government and many state governments began to pass legislation banning the chemical compounds that were in existence. But as we know, drug dealers (sorry, chemists) are crafty. They adjusted the chemical structure of the compound creating new “legal” varieties. Currently in many states there are dozens of varieties of synthetic cannabis available and being openly sold in gas stations and head shops.
With parents I provide education on the use of synthetics. Most want to have their teen placed in a residential treatment facility. I encourage them to contact their insurance provider to advocate for themselves and their child that their insurance should pay for some or all of treatment. The sad truth is that insurance providers know very little about the synthetics and since drugs like marijuana are deemed a non-medical issue, inpatient treatment is not approved. Parents then have their hands bound. Their child continues to have access to the drug, their only immediate options are intensive outpatient treatment or outpatient treatment, and as we discuss in a moment, there is limited means to monitor the use of the substance.
Drug testing is not a reasonable option at this time. Only three of the strands can be detected through urinary drug screens. These are very expensive tests usually priced over $50 a screen. The tests have limited capability due to the explosion of new chemical compounds that are not detectable. Probation, which has served as an effective support for abstinence, is not able to test for the presence of these substances. Parents do not have the ability to test at home limiting their response.
Where do we go from here? Parents must be educated on the existence of synthetic cannabis. They need to know that a powerful and dangerous drug (other than alcohol and tobacco) is being sold at the corner gas station. As treatment providers we need to continue to stay on top of these trends. I believe those of us in the chemical dependence field do a good job knowing what is out there and what sits on the horizon. We need to advocate for the public and educate medical and mental health providers on what is occurring so that the pediatric physician, the emergency room nurse, the family internist and the school social worker is now knowledgeable enough to start asking the right questions.
–Jamie Loffredo, MA, LPC, NCC, CAADC