Twenty states across the country have legalized marijuana in one form or another, and last week an entire country declared it legal — Uruguay in South America. Meanwhile, 45 states and the U.S. government are moving in the opposite direction when it comes to what’s known as “synthetic marijuana,” or “Spice” or “K2.” It’s a chemical mixture applied to harmless plants, dried and smoked.

Toxicologist Dr. Kurt Kleinschmidt of UT Southwestern explains what the chemical concoction is and the health risks associated with it.

The KERA radio story.

What is it?

Synthetic marijuana, Spice, or K2, are all synthetic cannabinoids created synthetically in a laboratory. These herbal mixtures are packaged and marketed as “safe” alternatives to marijuana online and in stores.

The mixtures are not made from marijuana, Dr. Kleinschmidt explains the reason they are sometimes referred to as “synthetic marijuana” is because the mixtures effect and stimulate the same receptors in our brain and body as does THC, the main ingredient in marijuana.

What are the health risks?

Unlike marijuana, there are serious health concerns associated with synthetic cannabinoids, according to Dr. Kelienschmidt. In 2011, three teenagers in Texas suffered heart attacks after smoking synthetic cannabinoids.

“There’s a lot of folks presenting to emergency rooms with complications because of these agents, he says. “And more and more case reports keep coming out suggesting that these are causing all sorts of problems.”

Among the adverse effects:

  • Agitation
  • Combativeness
  • Hard time breathing
  • Rapid pulse rate
  • Fast and irregular heart beat

Is synthetic marijuana legal?

This is a complicated question. In 2011, Texas enacted legislation that attempted to outlaw synthetic marijuana. The ban made it illegal to manufacture, produce, distribute, sell or possess 140 different chemical substances that can be used to make the drug. The thing is, new products with slightly altered chemical substances can skirt the ban. There are hundreds of such products, Dr. Kleinschmidt says, and law enforcement agencies have trouble distinguishing between legal and illegal substances.

  • nancymanyhats

    When someone threw an empty can of K2 over my backyard fence, I turned it into the police. It is very dangerous.