If you need evidence that marijuana is safer than pretty much every alternative, look to the Lehigh Valley of Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey.

k2A rash of synthetic cannabis overdoses there has left dozens sick and may have killed as many as eight people. It’s yet another reminder that users will turn to the synthetic version of marijuana if they’re denied access to the real thing.

Authorities in Allentown, Pa., issued a public warning April 22 saying synthetic weed, commonly known as Spice or K2, was leaving a bloody wake in the region.

“I’ve never seen a rash of exposure like this in anything I’ve done,” said Dr. Kenneth Katz, medical toxicologist and emergency physician with the Lehigh Valley Health Network. “This is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. It’s absolutely off the charts.”

At least 25 overdose victims were treated at a single hospital in Allentown, hospital officials said. At least another 20 were treated at other area health centers. Authorities said eight overdose deaths were linked to Spice, but the coroner’s office didn’t immediately confirm that claim.

The problem is being monitorered

Officials said they’re keeping an eye on the problem and anticipate it could spread further. Spice is a powerful, hazardous chemical that thrives in areas where pot isn’t easy to get. It’s typically most popular among teenagers.

The immediate effects are similar to those of real cannabis, but the chemical underpinnings are entirely different. Marijuana poses few long-term health concerns and has never killed anyone. Spice can be deadly.

The claim of overdose deaths in the Lehigh Valley was likely an exaggeration: No more than a handful of deaths have been definitively linked to Spice. Still, it is considered to be highly dangerous, far more toxic than marijuana.

Synthetic marijuana escaped research labs

Smoking SpiceSimilar to so-called “bath salts,” Spice and K2 were designed by chemists for research purposes. But they escaped the lab and made it to the black market, where the chemicals are sprayed on inactive herbal material.

The idea behind recreational Spice is that it’s harder for authorities to effectively ban because its chemical composition is different than that of real weed. The Controlled Substances Act bans THC and several other cannabinoids, but not all their synthetic counterparts.

Can cause dangerous effects

The goal was to create an experience similar to marijuana, but the effort failed. Some of the effects are comparable, but the side effects of Spice are much more severe. They can include rapid heartbeat, hypertension, psychosis, and even heart attacks.

Within a matter of days, police responded to roughly 50 reports involving synthetic cannabis intoxication in Allentown alone, including at least one case where a breathing tube was required. Nearby Bethlehem, Pa., logged at least nine additional incidents.

“These substances are extremely dangerous,” said Lehigh County, Pa., District Attorney Jim Martin. “The green, leafy matter in these packets may appear to be innocuous. However, it has been sprayed with chemical compounds that are hazardous. People think this is a safe substance and underestimate how dangerous it is. There is no way for a user to know exactly what chemical compound has been sprayed on the synthetic marijuana.”


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