Pubdate: Sun, 01 Aug 2010
Source: Olympian, The (WA)
Copyright: 2010 The Olympian
Author: Jeremy Pawloski


Legal: Health Effects Of Products Untested

Herbal blends such as the one that put a Tumwater teen in the 
emergency room after he smoked it last week include synthetic 
marijuana compounds that are legal but have never been approved for 
human consumption, according to a pharmacologist who uses them in research.

"There've been no controlled clinical trials to tell us how dangerous 
they are in humans," Steve Childers, a pharmacology professor at Wake 
Forest University Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, said of 
the compounds, which mostly are legal. "We don't know enough about 
the human pharmacological effects of these substances. Anybody with 
any brains wouldn't use them."

Childers conducts medical research with the same sort of synthetic 
cannabinoids that the teen had smoked. The cannabinoids are in herbal 
blends with names such as Spice, K2, Freedom and Genie that are sold 
in smoke shops nationwide and on the Internet. Childers said the 
synthetic compounds have great value in helping scientists to come up 
with new medical treatments and better understand how marijuana's 
active ingredient, THC, affects the brain.

The compounds have been invented in the past 15 years or so, and for 
the most part there are no legal restrictions on their possession or 
sale, Childers said.

One doctor said Wednesday that they are about five times as strong as 
regular marijuana. Childers said they are never used on humans in 
research labs because of health risks.

But the science that explains the chemistry that goes into making 
synthetic cannabinoids is widely published and available in the 
public domain, he said. And entrepreneurs with a background in 
chemistry looking to make a buck are manufacturing, marketing and 
selling the substances as legal marijuana substitutes.

The substances are typically labeled with the words "not for human 
consumption" or are sold as incense or potpourri. But Dr. Thomas 
Martin, associate medical director of the Washington Poison Center, 
said people who sell the synthetic marijuana are intentionally vague 
about its use. Manufacturers that sell the herbal blends of synthetic 
cannabinoids are aware of their psychoactive properties and that they 
will be bought and smoked by people who want to get high, he said.


As the popularity of synthetic marijuana grows, so does the number of 
people in Washington who are getting sick after smoking it, said Jim 
Williams, executive director of the Washington Poison Center.

In 2009, state hospitals reported admitting seven people for 
treatment after they had smoked synthetic marijuana blends, Williams 
said. In 2010, 29 people have been admitted to state hospitals for 
the same reason, he said.

Martin said that increase is only "the tip of the iceberg," and many 
other incidents involving people having adverse reactions after 
smoking synthetic marijuana go unreported. He said he has heard 
anecdotal reports of other such incidents on listservs used by 
doctors in Western Washington.

"It's certainly taking off in Seattle," Martin said of recreational 
use of synthetic marijuana.

Nationwide, in 2009 there were 13 reports to poison centers related 
to the use of synthetic marijuana, according to the American 
Association of Poison Control Centers. There have been 761 such calls 
nationwide through July 23 this year, according to the AAPCC. A week 
later, that number had jumped to 843, according to an AAPCC spokeswoman.

Typical health problems reported by people who have adverse reactions 
include heart palpitations, delusions, panic attacks, hallucinations, 
nausea, tremors and high blood pressure.

In June, a teenager in Iowa underwent an extreme panic attack, then 
shot himself after smoking an herbal blend of synthetic marijuana 
sold in smoke shops, according to a law enforcement briefing from the 
Office of National Drug Control Policy. The Iowa Legislature 
subsequently banned the products, said Karmen Hanson, an analyst for 
the National Conference of State Legislatures, which provides 
research for the legislators and staffs of every state and territory.

Bans of synthetic marijuana have been passed in nine other states: 
Kansas, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, 
Tennessee and North Dakota, Hanson said.


The Tumwater 17-year-old's experience speaks to the dangers of 
synthetic marijuana. He was admitted to Providence St. Peter Hospital 
with muscle contractions, low blood pressure and a heart rate of 170 
beats per minute, said his emergency room physician, Joe Pellicer.

"He could have died," Pellicer said Monday.

The teen's mother, Jhanna Parker, said her son's 18-year-old friend 
bought the herbal blend, called Freedom Spice, at Fire & Earth, a 
smoke shop on Fourth Avenue in Olympia. She said that because the 
product is legal, her son didn't think it would hurt him.

A toxicology screen didn't turn up any illegal drugs or intoxicants 
in the teen's system, Pellicer has said.

Sarah Schwarz, the owner of Fire & Earth, said Monday that she will 
no longer sell any herbal spice products, and she pulled the Freedom 
Spice brand from her shelves after a phone call from Parker that day.


Childers and Martin agree that the government should prohibit the 
sale of herbal spice products mixed with synthetic cannabinoids. 
People who buy a legal herbal blend containing synthetic cannabinoids 
don't know exactly what they are getting or its quality because the 
sale of such products is not regulated, Childers said.

"It's a new drug," he said.

Childers said he does not advocate anyone smoking marijuana but 
acknowledged that it's safer than smoking synthetic marijuana. The 
synthetic version is stronger because it is designed in labs as "full 
agonists," meaning it binds more powerfully with the brain's 
receptors, making it easier for scientists to study its effects. 
Also, scientists have studied the health effects of smoking regular 
marijuana for years, providing an extensive body of knowledge.

One of the organizers of Seattle Hempfest 2010 spoke out about 
synthetic cannabinoids in an e-mail to The Olympian.

"Nature has provided us with cannabis; a relatively benign natural 
substance that has never killed a single person from toxic reaction 
or overdose," reads the e-mail from Vivian McPeak, president of the 
nonprofit organization that is putting on Seattle Hempfest. "It 
boggles the mind to think of why anyone would prefer to use a 
potentially toxic, highly concentrated chemical version in its place."

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration is researching the herbal 
products for sale that contain synthetic marijuana, DEA spokesman 
Rusty Payne said Tuesday.

It is a long and involved process to prohibit the sale or possession 
of a drug under the Controlled Substances Act, he said. First, 
studies must be conducted to determine a drug's potential for abuse, 
as well as whether it is addictive or causes health problems, he 
said. The medical community and other federal agencies, including the 
Department of Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug 
Administration, all must be consulted, he said. And the results have 
to stand up in court.

According to the DEA's website, proceedings to add a drug or other 
substance to the list of controlled substances must be initiated by 
the DEA, the HHS, or "by petition from any interested person." The 
DEA begins its investigation after it receives a petition; Payne said 
Tuesday that an investigation has been initiated.

"We're very much looking into it," he said, although he could give no 

Payne noted that Congress can bypass the process by passing 
legislation to prohibit the possession or sale of a drug. He 
cautioned that the DEA takes no position on whether Congress should 
take action with regard to synthetic cannabinoids but added that they 
are dangerous and should be avoided.

Reports of the health concerns posed by the herbal smoking blends are 
attracting the attention of Congress. On Wednesday, a staffer for 
U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla., forwarded The Olympian a copy of a 
letter the senator had sent that day to the heads of the DEA and HHS.

In the letter, LeMieux states, "In light of the surge in adverse 
reports associated with the use of these products, efforts by 
multiple states to ban its sale and an overall lack of information 
regarding the extent of use and illicit distribution, expedited 
analysis by DEA and HHS is warranted."

Dr. Alvin C. Bronstein, the acting director of toxicosurveillance for 
the AAPCC, states in a news release: "Statistics from (the National 
Poison Data System) show that this is an emerging phenomenon. The 
symptoms can be life-threatening."
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