Brain and Body

Multiple People in “Zombielike” State After Overdosing on Drug 85X as Potent as Marijuana

December 16, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

synthetic cannabinoids
Photo credit: Lance Cpl. Damany S. Coleman (public domain)

New research describes an incident in Brooklyn that sent 18 people to the hospital.

Synthetic cannabinoids (aka K2 or spice) are a rising concern in the medical community, and an incident that occurred back in July in Brooklyn, New York showed just how dangerous these designer drugs can be.

According to reports, 33 people were exposed to a synthetic cannabinoid called AMB-FUBINACA, originally created by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, and 18 men were transported to the hospital. Witnesses say the men were in a “zombielike” state.

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A new study outlining the incident, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, drew evidence from blood and urine samples of eight of the 18 hospitalized men. Lab tests showed that the synthetic drug, known on the streets as AK-47 24 Karat Gold, was 85 times as potent as THC in plant-grown marijuana.

Roy Gerona, a clinical chemist who worked on the report, told the New York Times that the term “synthetic marijuana” is dangerously misleading. “There is this false idea out there that these drugs are safe, because no one overdoses on marijuana,” he said.

In reality, synthetic cannabinoids have a completely different chemical structure than plant-based THC.

One of the draws to synthetic cannabinoids is that dealers can make a lot of money from the sales — nearly $500,000 from 1 kilogram. Plus, “If you are someone who is regularly drug tested, it will not show up,” Gerona explains, which adds to the drugs’ appeal.

However, these pros are overshadowed by the overwhelming cons. The drug can cause users to experience difficulty breathing, rapid heart rate, and shakes and sweats, which can ultimately bring on panic attacks. Even more disconcerting, continued use of synthetic cannabinoids can induce psychotic episodes, some which can last for weeks.

LEARN MORE: What is Spice and Why is the Drug so Dangerous?

In an earlier email to The Science Explorer, Paul Prather, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Arkansas, explains that “regular use of cannabis is associated with relatively few adverse effects” compared to synthetic cannabinoids.

From 2011-2014, over 20 deaths were linked with synthetic cannabinoids, and to date, there are still no cases of death caused by regular marijuana use.
Prather says his research group was recently awarded a 5-year, 2.7 million dollar grant by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to study the toxicity of synthetic cannabinoids. Hopefully their work will bring a new understanding about the dangers associated with this increasingly popular class of designer drugs.

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