Health officials and addiction experts are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to warning teens of the dangers of synthetic marijuana. The perception among many high school and college students is that pot is already safe, so a manufactured version should be even safer.
Tell that to the family of Emily Bauer. The 17-year-old landed in the ICU after using a form of synthetic weed that is packaged as “potpourri” and available at gas stations and convenience stores.
Also known by the nicknames “Spice” and “K2,” fake weed is an herbal mixture sprayed with chemicals that are meant to create a high similar to that produced by smoking marijuana. While it may be sold as a legal alternative to pot, it is not legal to smoke or ingest and isn’t monitored by the FDA for use in this way. In fact, synthetic marijuana is now banned in 41 states, including Texas – where Emily lives.
It’s no wonder there has been a crackdown. Synthetic marijuana was linked to 11,406 drug-related emergency department visits in 2010 according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Of those emergency room visits the majority were by kids between the ages of 12 and 17.
So if the first state laws banning synthetic drugs popped up in 2010 and the dangers are so well known, why is it still on store shelves, available for purchase by teens like Emily?
“These drug manufacturers slightly change the chemical compound, and it becomes a different substance that’s not covered by the law,” NCSL policy specialist Alison Lawrence told CNN. “That’s why in 2011 and 2012, we saw the states enacting these broader language bans.”
It doesn’t help that the potpourri displays at stores include a label that reads “not for human consumption.” Although there is no other use for these substances, this wording gives sellers some measure of protection as they can claim individual consumers simply “misused” the product.
Meanwhile, Emily continues in rehab. She is blind and there has been extensive damage to her brain and body. She makes progress each day, moving a limb or whispering a message to family, but her long-term prognosis remains unknown.
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