Over the years, there have been warnings about the dangers of various legal and illegal drugs. Some of the warnings have been valid while others were "urban legends" or turned out to be false. Such legends led people to ignore or discount the important warnings that really do matter.
Unfortunately, we are continuing to face problems with synthetic cannabis, called Spice or K2, and synthetic cathinones, often called bath salts, which are constantly evolving chemically and are often resulting in serious effects. In Dallas this past weekend, more than 40 people went to the emergency room thanks to overdosing on synthetic marijuana, and a recent outbreak of what was alleged to be K2 overdoses in Austin resulted in 30 people going to the emergency room.
Synthetic drugs are dangerous drugs, yet in 2012, the national Monitoring the Future Survey reported high school students were less likely than their older cohorts to think these drugs could be harmful and thus reported higher use. Information based on solid data, rather than rumors or hysterical warnings, should be used to get information to our youths, who need to understand the dangers in taking drugs that are constantly changing in content and effects. We have the data, but we now need to talk with potential users about the sources, the variations, and information based on scientific research. These are drugs created through organic chemistry processes and offer a good learning opportunity about what organic chemistry is and how it can affect us for good or bad.
Synthetic drugs such as K2 and bath salts are chemicals primarily manufactured in China with no quality control, no dosing instructions and no information about their contents. Because their chemical compositions vary, federal and state authorities are constantly scheduling or rescheduling them. However, rogue chemists just add another molecule in an attempt to stay "legal." For example, in 2010, 95 percent of synthetic cannabis products were variations of what's called the JWH formula. But by 2014, the JWH varieties were only 2 percent, with other forms called XLR-11 and AB-FUBINACA comprising 60 percent of the synthetic cannabis products identified in the first four months of 2014.
The lack of chemical reference standards means a lag in the time it takes a laboratory to identify the new drug. A drug seen in the emergency room in a Spice packet may not be a synthetic cannabinoid but some unknown chemical. This lag in identifying the drugs also means urinalysis tests are unable to identify the latest versions of these synthetic drugs.
At the same time, Texas poison centers have seen a spike in numbers. They report that between January 2010 and April 2014, there were 2,179 exposures to synthetic cannabinoids. Common symptoms have included vomiting, increased heart rate, increased agitation and drowsiness. Among bath salt users during the same period, there were 583 exposures with symptoms of increased heart rate, agitation, hypertension and hallucinations. More than 400 people entered state-funded substance abuse treatment in 2013 with synthetic cannabinoid abuse as their primary problem.
To combat the problem, these drugs need to be discussed around the family dinner table, and parents need to make their position clear. In fact, the biannual Texas secondary school survey has consistently reported that students who said their parents disapproved of teenagers using such substances were less likely to use them. Such conversations are now more important than ever because the movements toward legalization of medical marijuana have resulted in changed attitudes toward the use of marijuana. A recently published study found that with the commercialization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, the perceptions of risk are now lower than before. We need to make sure our children understand that the synthetic marijuana in the packets is NOT the same as the "old" baggie of herbal marijuana and that it is more potent with unknown chemicals. The field has quickly changed, and our children deserve to know about these drugs in detail and to be aware of the dangers of taking these "mystery" drugs, which are not urban legends. Providing evidence based on credible information will encourage potential users to consider the facts.
Synthetic drugs are drugs that can hurt you. Our children need the right information to know about them because what you don't know can hurt you.
Jane Carlisle Maxwell is the senior research scientist in the Addiction Research Institute in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin. She has been researching drugs and patterns of use for more than 40 years.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman.