Synthetic marijuana is dangerous, it’s potentially deadly, and it’s responsible for what public health experts describe as a scourge of overdoses on the East Coast.
But while there are laws that ban the chemistry behind these lab-brewed drugs – most often known as Spice or K2 – it’s easy for amateur scientists to tweak the molecular structure just enough to evade those laws. That’s why K2, at least in many of its formulations, has remained legal in New York City.
But officials hope to change that. An ordinance before the New York City Council would ban the sale of synthetic cannabis or any drug designed to mimic it. Penalties would include up to a year in jail, plus a $5,000 fine on a first violation and up to $25,000 for subsequent convictions.
Synthetic marijuana goes by a wide variety of names. It’s known as K2, Spice, bath salts, and “research chemicals,” among other labels. These drugs are all just synthetic variations on the chemicals that constitute marijuana.
Simulated marijuana high
Synthetic weed can produce a high similar to that generated by real pot. But it also carries side effects, sometimes severe, including rapid heart beat, erratic blood pressure, and even psychosis. At least one fatality has been confirmed, with others reported in recent weeks.
K2 appeals mostly to teenagers and to low-income drug addicts with no access to real marijuana. Synthetic weed is often said to have a decidedly unpleasant effect, especially when used in large amounts.
Under the new law, New York officials would be able to close head shops and other businesses that sell K2 or imitation chemicals. Mayor Bill de Blasio has given his backing to the proposal.
“We support the council’s bill and look forward to working with the council on it,” said Karen Hinton, the mayor’s spokeswoman.
Synthetic marijuana bears little chemical resemblance to real cannabis. They both involve molecules known as cannabinoids, but they produce very different effects and health consequences.
K2 escaped research labs
K2 was created as a research chemical, designed to help scientists study cannabinoids in nature. But the concoction eventually escaped the lab and became a cheap, popular street drug. It typically doesn’t register on drug tests, making it even more appealing to certain users.
Real weed has no serious adverse health consequences, but K2 is known to trigger major heart, breathing, and other critical problems. Marijuana produces only limited, temporary side effects, while the side effects of synthetic weed can be fatal.
New York health workers are reporting “wide ranging problems that include cardiac arrest and kidney problems” stemming from use of K2, said Hillary Kunins, assistant commissioner at the city’s Department of Mental Health and Hygiene.
A big part of the problem, Kunins said, is that there’s no consistency from one batch to another and thus no way to know what kind of chemicals are being ingested.
New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton drew some mockery in August when he referred to K2 as “weaponized marijuana.” The NYPD has been accused of going overboard on the problem, but police and health officials say the threat is real.