Ealiesha Tyler was like most 13-year-old boys. He was athletic, and enjoyed participating in football, basketball, and boxing. While Ealiesha hadn’t yet decided on a career goal, he worked hard for straight-As in preparation for high school and beyond. Ealiesha was ready to make a mark on the world. No one expected what came next.
On November 3, 2014, Ealiesha took a lethal mixture of synthetic marijuana, or “spice”, alcohol, and cough medicine. After passing out, his brain began to swell while fluid filled his lungs. Ealiesha never woke up again.
Ealiesha – a Springfield middle school student described as the “good kid” – was pronounced dead from an apparent drug overdose. Synthetic marijuana was cited as the major contributor to his death.
Then there’s the case of 19-year-old Connor Eckhardt. The exuberant and energetic California teen was a lot like Ealiesha. Friends and family described Connor as a sports nut, with his favorite activities including anything that delivered a sense of adventure: surfing, snowboarding, skateboarding and wake boarding.
Connor and Ealiesha also shared something else in common: experimentation with synthetic marijuana.
On July 11, 2014, Connor inhaled one hit of synthetic marijuana. Soon after, his brain began to swell, and he quickly slipped into a coma. Connor Eckhardt passed away on July 16, 2014, leaving family and friends shattered with grief. The tiny square packet of “spice” was still in his pocket.
Synthetic Marijuana: Not your Typical Kitchen “Spice”
What is this “fake marijuana” that sent more than 15,600 teens between the ages of 12 – 20 to the emergency room in 2011, and continues to take the lives of countless others?
Synthetic marijuana is an herbal mixture sprayed with chemicals to reproduce a high similar to smoking marijuana. Besides sharing a name, synthetic marijuana is much different from its plant-based counterpart, producing stronger effects with more dangerous consequences.
John W. Huffman, the chemist who originally designed synthetic marijuana to help scientists study the cannabinoid system in the human brain, warned of its dangers. The famous PhD was once quoted as saying he “couldn’t imagine why anyone would try it recreationally.” Due to its deadly toxicity, Dr. Huffman likened it to “playing Russian roulette.”
The most popular way to play the game is by smoking “spice” as a joint. It can also be mixed with marijuana or directly ingested. The drug takes effect in three to five minutes, producing a high that can last anywhere from one to eight hours.
Synthetic marijuana goes by a number of names, with some of the more popular being: Spice, K2, Fake Weed, Bliss, Black Mamba, Genie, Bombay Blue, Skunk, Blaze, Haze, and Dank. Whatever you call it, one thing’s for sure – synthetic marijuana can be deadly.
Fake marijuana, Real consequences
Many users of synthetic marijuana report effects similar to those experienced with natural marijuana, such as altered perception, relaxation, and elevated mood. Many users, however, also report psychotic effects like extreme anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations that can last up to two weeks.
Synthetic marijuana works by essentially overwhelming the brain’s circuitry. The chemicals bind to THC receptors in a way that is much more profound than with natural marijuana. This can lead to a more powerful and unpredictable effect on the user. Said Paul Prather, PhD, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Arkansas, “[Synthetic marijuana’s] potency can be up to one hundred or more times greater than THC – that’s how much drug it takes to produce an effect.”
The negative symptoms of synthetic marijuana use are serious: agitation, vomiting, hallucination, paranoia, tremor, seizure, tachycardia, hypokalemia, chest pain, cardiac problems, stroke, kidney damage, acute psychosis, brain damage, and as evidenced by Ealiesha Tyler, Connor Eckhardt, and many others – death.
The Teen Epidemic
Stories like Ealiesha Tyler’s and Connor Eckhardt’s are unfortunately becoming more common place among American teens. In fact, one in 9 high school seniors admit to synthetic marijuana use. The drug is currently the second most popular after natural marijuana, and is especially popular with males. In 2012, nearly twice as many males in 12th grade reported use of synthetic marijuana in comparison to females in the same age group.
If synthetic marijuana is so dangerous, why does its popularity continue to rise among teens? There are three primary reasons:
- Accessibility. Synthetic marijuana, often disguised as “incense” and marketed as “not for human consumption”, is readily available for purchase in head shops, gas stations, and online. The sale of synthetic marijuana to adults and teens is perfectly legal in many states.
- Safety misconceptions. Because the product is legally sold in stores, many people – especially teens – trust that the product must be safe. Sellers of synthetic marijuana try to market the product as natural and harmless. In reality, synthetic marijuana is neither. The product is often produced in remote areas of India and China where the chemicals used can vary greatly and are in no way regulated. The concentration of chemicals can also vary; a hit from one brand could result in a minimal euphoric high, while a hit from another brand could result in death.
- Not easily detectable. Synthetic marijuana is not easily detected in standard drug tests due to the wide range of chemicals that are used. In order to test for synthetic marijuana, a special synthetic cannabinoids panel can be administered that tests for such compounds.
Take a Stand at your School
As with any drug prevention program, education is key. Help students understand the negative consequences of synthetic marijuana by sharing real-life stories, such as that of Ealiesha Tyler and Connor Eckhardt. Stories such as these can help teens better relate to the severity of the situation.
School staff should also be well-educated on the behavioral symptoms of synthetic marijuana use, which can include:
- Impaired academic or occupational functioning
- Hyperactivity or decreased energy
- Increased aggression
- Catatonic behavior
- Delayed speech or being unable to speak
- Engaging in risky behaviors
By enforcing a proactive approach against “spice”, you can help prevent one of your students from becoming another statistic in this risky game of drug roulette.
Do you believe synthetic marijuana use will continue to be a growing epidemic among teens, or is it just a fad? Share your opinion with us in the comments section below. For more information about how to fight synthetic marijuana use at your school, call Employee Screening Services at (417) 887-7697.