The 911 call placed on behalf of Demi Moore last month suggested the actress may have endured a highly-negative reaction to synthetic marijuana, also known as K2, or Spice.
The caller said that Moore had been smoking something other than marijuana, and similar to incense. Synthetic marijuana is often packaged under names like "K2," "spice," "herbal incense," and "potpourri."
The caller frantically claimed that Moore, while breathing, was convulsing. The use of synthetic cannabinoids, like K2, can produce anxiety, hallucinations and convulsions, according to recent studies. Because synthetic marijuana is so recent to the drug scene, more studies are needed.
Moore survived. But not everyone does. What makes synthetic marijuana so dangerous is that it is far more potent than cannabis and can lead to toxic, even fatal reactions.
A 13-year-old Pennsylvania boy suffered chemical burns to his lungs from smoking synthetic pot. The lung injuries were so grave the boy underwent a double lung transplant. He died from complications of an infection.
Emergencies stemming from the use of synthetic pot are rising drastically. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, centers around the country reported receiving 6,955 calls last year involving people who were harmfully exposed. That's well more than double the reports in 2010.
The dangers of synthetic marijuana led, in March, 2011, to the temporary classification of five synthetic cannabinoids as a schedule 1 substance.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) divides controlled substances into five categories. Schedule 1 is the most restrictive. Drugs that are in this category are considered not only highly abusive but also have no currently accepted medical use. Schedule I drugs include, heroin, ecstasy, and LSD .
The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, in fact, authorizes the U.S. Attorney General to ban products that pose an "imminent hazard to the public safety."
Today, 43 U.S. states have passed or proposed a law banning the sale of specific chemicals contained in synthetic marijuana and other dangerous drugs such as "bath salts."
Synthetic cannabinoids are widely available online, where they are typically marketed as "spice," "incense" or "potpourri." Manufacturers are playing a cat-and-mouse game with authorities: Every time one chemical gets banned, makers substitute another chemical, chemically virtually identical in its composition and effects, to circumvent a ban. The solution to implement a broader, widespread ban on synthetic chemicals has yet to overcome legislative hurdles.
Even if federal laws are passed, their enforcement, say prosecutors, is difficult and time consuming. The result is that these highly-toxic synthetic cannabinoids are readily available to drug seekers and can be obtained in many convenience stores without fear of prosecution.
When packaged, synthetic marijuana looks like the real thing, and when smoked, tastes and feels like the real thing.
But it's not the real thing. "Monster weed" (synthetic pot, now K2 and its related family of compounds), originally developed by a Clemson University organic chemistry professor to test on lab animals, is much more potent. And it can lead to convulsions, seizures, paranoia, hallucinations, paranoia and high blood pressure.
What can be done to reduce synthetic drug abuse, of K2 and many other dangerous drugs, is not simply legislation or enforcement. It is education, public awareness and early intervention. That was what the White House Drug "Czar" Gil Kerlikowske, with whom I met in New York at the DEA's most recent National Prescription Drug Take Back Day in October 2011, told me.
Like most public health hazards, treatment and law enforcement mutually support one another. Communities must become more vigilant at recognizing the dangers of synthetic marijuana. Public awareness about its dangers can reduce its use and help channel people to treatment. We are at risk of an epidemic that could impose a costly human, social and economic toll. Law enforcement is a necessary but limited means of drug control, as we know dating back to the days of prohibition. But the media high profile emergency involving Demi Moore should serve as a public warning about the dangers of synthetic marijuana in a way that is far more effective than what many academicians and doctors are able to convey.