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Synthetic drugs such as “K2,” “Spice” and “Vanilla Sky” are part of an emerging class of abused drugs causing concern among health professionals, researchers and legislators, according to a doctor studying these drugs. Products containing unregulated psychoactive drugs are being sold as “incense” or “bath salts” without restriction or quality assurance. In fact, users don’t know what—or how much—of the drug’s active ingredients are in each batch, which can lead to dangerous side effects or overdoses.

“There is no way for users to know what they are receiving,” says Ryan Vandrey, PhD, a faculty researcher with the Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “This is one reason we are seeing an influx of emergency room visits and calls to poison control centers associated with use of these drugs.”

At the recent annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Vandrey presented the results of a survey he conducted of 168 users of synthetic cannabinoid products. Known commonly as “Spice” or “K2” products, these packages of dried plant material are usually contaminated with one or more drugs that are similar to, but more potent than THC, the high-inducing chemical in marijuana. In fact, these products are often marketed as legal alternatives to marijuana, and are becoming increasingly popular, particularly among teenagers and young adults.

Public health concerns have followed numerous reports that use of these products can induce hallucinations, severe paranoid or panic reactions and vomiting, and have resulted in hospital admissions. “These reports are indeed concerning, but similar reactions are known to occur with high doses of marijuana,” he said. “No one has done a controlled study of the drugs found in these products, so right now all we have is anecdotal information. We also don’t know which drugs, or combination of drugs, found in these products are likely to result in health problems.”

Much is still not known about these drugs, in large part because public health officials only hear about people using them who have called poison control centers or who have visited the hospital ER with symptoms. “It’s probably the case that the majority of uses of these drugs don’t result in a hospital visit, but since we don’t know how many people are using these drugs, we don’t really know what the typical experience is,” Dr. Vandrey notes. “Because drugs on the street are changing so rapidly, we’re constantly playing catch-up.”

About one-fifth of those surveyed said Spice or K2 had become their drug of choice. About 25 percent said they had a bad reaction and did not plan on using the drugs again. Everyone else fell somewhere in between.

Most of the respondents said they bought the products legally, either at a gas station or head shop, or online. “These products are so readily available—there’s no age restriction for buying them,” Dr. Vandrey pointed out. “That kind of accessibility for a drug is unique.”

Dr. Vandrey’s study is published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

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