Tanner Noah Mengore, a 22-year-old from Los Osos, California, was described by friends and family as “kind, personable, gentle, and a hard worker.” Hard worker may have been an understatement. While attending college, Tanner worked three different jobs as a dishwasher, busboy, and cook for a local restaurant. No one expected that this hard-working, motivated young man would make a decision that would devastate so many young lives.
Tanner and his two siblings Wendi, 19, and Michael, 23, along with their 17-year-old friend Simon and his 22-month-old nephew, Mason, decided to take a drive one fall day in October 2014. Suddenly, Tanner lost control of the SUV he was driving. The vehicle jumped the curb at a high rate of speed, swerved sharply back onto the pavement, and careened across multiple highway lanes. Trying to regain control, Tanner swerved again, this time leaping over another curve before hitting a tree limb. The vehicle went airborne before rolling over several times down an embankment.
The crash was deadly. 17-year-old Simon and young Mason, only a toddler, were killed. The other passengers suffered major injuries. Tanner was determined to be under the influence of synthetic marijuana, also known as “spice”.
This “fake marijuana” can severely impair the user’s motor skills and cognitive function, as was the case for Tanner. When used while operating a vehicle, heavy machinery, or working through other complex tasks where safety is an issue, the results can be devastating.
Synthetic Marijuana: A Significant Workplace Concern
What is this fake marijuana that was responsible for sending 28,500 people 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.” Dr. Huffman likened it to “playing Russian roulette” due to its deadly toxicity.
Regardless of the warnings, the popularity of synthetic marijuana is on the rise, with a positive rate of use maintaining 2% or greater for the past three years (the positive rate for marijuana is 1.22%). And if you thought synthetic marijuana use was just for “teens”, think again – the median user tends to be about 25-years-old, with a little less than half being over the age of 30. Nearly 80% of these users are also male.
Does this demographic sound similar to your workforce?
Synthetic marijuana is used similarly to natural marijuana. It can be smoked either in a joint or through a pipe. It can also be directly ingested, making it easy for employees to use discreetly in the workplace. 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 poses a significant risk, especially when used in the workplace.
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. Additional reported symptoms include decreased motor function and disassociation.
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 and brain damage – all of which could lead to death.
Synthetic marijuana can seriously affect job performance, company liability, and most importantly, your employee’s safety.
How Employers Can Take Action
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 is perfectly legal in many states. “Legal”, however, doesn’t mean approved for workplace consumption. Does your company policy cover synthetic marijuana use in the workplace? If not, it’s important to bring your documents up to speed.
Add a specific mention to your drug and alcohol policy about synthetic marijuana and restrictions for use both on and off premises so you can properly (and legally) enforce your company’s stance.
Keep in mind also that synthetic marijuana is not easily detected in standard drug tests due to the wide range of chemicals that are used. In fact, one of the primary reasons adults turn to synthetic marijuana is because they believe it can’t be detected in a company drug test. Fortunately, drug screening technology has evolved in recent years to account for such substances. If you suspect an employee to be under the influence of synthetic marijuana, you can request a special synthetic cannabinoids panel to be administered that can test for such compounds.
By taking the above proactive measures, synthetic marijuana can be nipped in the bud before it becomes a hazard in your workplace.
Are you concerned about the rise of synthetic marijuana use and its potential impact on you as an employer? Share your opinion with us, or feel free to ask a question, in the comments section below. For more information about synthetic marijuana testing at your company, call Employee Screening Services at (417) 887-7697.