By: Darby Kendall
Austin’s synthetic cannabis outbreak starts at an unusual source: funerary flowers.
Synthetic marijuana, commonly referred to as ‘spice’ or ‘K2,’ is composed of potpourri and a mixture of drugs imported from China under the guise of industrial chemicals. Not only are the drugs dangerous, but in Austin, the origin of its main ingredient has a surprisingly dark past, according to Professor Jane Maxwell, an expert on synthetic drugs at the University of Texas at Austin.
“When you have funerals, there’s tons of flowers, and the flowers die.” Professor Maxwell says. “One of the sources to get rid of all those dead flowers is they send them out to the Austin State School. The patients in there pick the dead blossoms off, and that turns into potpourri… Some of the big time operations have cement mixers; they put all that plant material in there with the chemicals and mix it up. You don’t want to smoke it.”
Synthetic cannabis became a major problem in Austin during the summer of 2014, and the situation has only worsened since then. From May 1 through August 23 of this year, Austin-Travis County EMS treated over 1,000 patients who were sickened after taking the drug. However, according to ACTEMS Captain Darren Noak, the problem is by no means endemic.
“K2 is not an Austin problem. It’s not a Texas problem. It’s a national problem,” Captain Noak says.
The large-scale outbreak of synthetic cannabis occurred for a multitude of reasons; namely, the drug in inexpensive, and does not show up on drug tests. For those who are regularly drug tested, synthetic cannabis’ undetectable presence in the body makes it preferable over marijuana. Also, the cost of an ounce of ‘spice’ ranges from $3 to $10 a gram, significantly less than its natural counterpart. Depending on the state, the drug can also be easily bought at convenience stores and head shops, where it is labeled and sold as ‘incense.’ According to Professor Mark C. Smith, who specializes in the cultural history of alcohol and drugs at UT Austin, these characteristics of synthetic cannabis make it an ideal drug for the homeless population.
“You’re seeing these people doing the drug in public, which is dangerous under any circumstances. It’s dangerous in terms of being out there without anyone to help you.” Professor Smith says. “I think it preys on people who are desperate.”
"K2 is not an Austin problem. It’s not a Texas problem.
It’s a national problem"
According to ACTEMS, many of the emergency calls they receive about the drug come from areas where there are dense homeless populations. Since April of 2010, the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) has been the location with the highest density of synthetic marijuana emergencies for ACTEMS. The location with the second highest patient contacts in Austin is a halfway home.
“If you’re talking about a predominantly homeless population, are those the most healthy individuals?” Captain Noak says. “They have pre-existing medical conditions… now you’re in the summer months, you’re out on the street, you hit K2, and now your heart rate goes up to 200 beats a minute and you’re breathing 40 times a minute. The heat, the environment, the nutrition levels, the health of the person, it all contributes to how [the drug] affects someone.”
One common misconception about synthetic marijuana is the idea that the drug is an inexpensive alternative to cannabis. Although the drug’s name suggests this, synthetic cannabis no longer resembles the plant it was originally created to mimic. The drug was originally named after marijuana because it affects the same receptors in the brain as THC, but no longer does so in the same way due to its constant metamorphosis. The regular transformations occur because producers of the drug periodically change its chemical makeup in order to legally sell it. The unpredictability of synthetic marijuana’s chemical structure is what makes it so dangerous, Professor Maxwell says.
“The versions we saw in 2009 to 2012 don’t exist anymore. In 2010, there were 18 different variations. In 2014, there were 78 different variations. It keeps changing that quickly,” Maxwell says. “People are mixing it in the back room of a store somewhere… No quality control, and you never know who’s mixing it.”
"So much bad K2 has been sold… Drug dealers seldom do care about
what happens to their buyers."
Captain Noak has seen this variance in real time, while responding to calls regarding the drug.
“When we got the first batches in 2014, there was altered mentation, agitation, delirium, superhuman strength, busting up EMS equipment, fighting police officers, high blood pressure, high heart rates.” Captain Noak says. “And then come this year, we’re seeing low blood pressure, unconsciousness, catatonic and comatose states.”
That uncertainty over a user’s reaction to a particular batch of the drug ends up hurting both ATCEMS and the hospitals where those with synthetic cannabis complications stay. Since side effects of the drug range from nausea to heart attacks, every patient taken in must be given the highest available care.
“The whole ER at Brackenridge is filled [with synthetic marijuana patients],” Captain Noak says. “There’s times that every one of their critical beds is taken up by someone who used K2… We heard from one of the local hospitals that the record [time] of a return patient was 8 minutes.”
Not only is the chemical makeup and accompanying side-effects of synthetic marijuana hard to pin down, but since the drug has risen in popularity, the legality of it has been muddled as well. The laws surrounding the drug vary from state-to-state, and in Texas, there was a recent push to end the popular use of the drug through new legislation. An updated Texas Controlled Substances Act took effect on September 1st, and one revision put a blanket ban on “synthetic equivalents of the substances contained in the plant [marijuana].” However, there are concerns the new law could serve to force the trade underground, possibly making the drug more dangerous.
“K2 is completely out of control. You’re dealing with people who are not very aware consumers.” Professor Smith says. “So much bad K2 has been sold… Drug dealers seldom do care about what happens to their buyers.”
As ACTEMS, and the rest of Texas, waits to see if the newly enacted law will lead to a drop in synthetic marijuana related calls, Captain Noak says his priority is getting word out about the dangers of the drug.
“We want this to be a conversation at the dinner table, and at least try to prevent it from being spread into our teen and young-adult populations.” Captain Noak says. “It’s playing Russian roulette with your life.”