Synthetic marijuana: Experts say fake pot poses serious dangers, can cause manic rage, health issues

The names seem harmless, the packaging cool.

But the side effects of synthetic marijuana, known on the street as Spice and K2, can be as serious as a heart attack, experts say.

The problem exists nationwide, with users reporting elevated blood pressure, rapid heart rate, anxiety, nausea, seizures, hallucinations, vomiting and combativeness. For some, the bad trip has turned lethal.

Dr. Peter Antevy, an ER doctor at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospitalin Hollywood, tells of people stoned on fake pot behaving as though they were possessed. In a manic rage, some have attacked family and friends, or jumped out of windows and moving cars.

"We only see the cases where they get screwed up," Antevy said. "Some of the kids are at home and numb to the world."

But those who make it to the hospital usually come in with glassy eyes, unable to speak.

"They are clearly psychotic in appearance," Antevy said. "The symptoms can sometimes last for a week or more. When you ask these people afterward, they had no idea they were angry or psychotic or had a seizure."

Oakland Park resident Jimmy Hewitt, 25, said he smokes 3 grams of Spice a day. The herbs are sprayed with chemicals to mimic THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

He tried it two years ago while trying to give up marijuana and has been smoking it ever since.

On May 5, Hewitt was high on "Cloud Nine" when he slit his wrist with a kitchen knife — deep enough to require seven stitches.

"When I cut myself the blood just started gushing," he said. "I was freaking out. It looked like a murder scene. I was scared I was going to die."

After three days in the hospital, he got home and began looking right away for his stash of Spice. He got angry when his fiancee told him she'd flushed it all. Then he calmed down, he said, after remembering he still had some in his back pocket.

Several states, including Florida, New York and New Jersey, have attempted to ban the chemical compounds used to make fake marijuana, sold as herbal incense in packages marked "not for human consumption."

But the manufacturers merely come up with new formulas to skirt the law. In theory, the products aim to mimic the high of marijuana, but in many cases have a far more dangerous effect.

In an effort to target the root of the problem, Sweetwater inMiami-Dade County is on the verge of outlawing all incense sold in loose leaf and granular form. Anyone caught selling loose leaf incense would face fines of $500 per day and up to 60 days in jail.

Sweetwater officials are expected to give final approval to the ban Monday night.

On Tuesday, Sunrise officials plan to vote on a similar ban.

Others may soon follow suit, including Deerfield Beach, Pembroke Pines, Broward, Miami-Dade and Collier counties.

Sunrise Commissioner Joey Scuotto pushed for the ban after hearing about the effort in Sweetwater.

"Kids feel like it's safe because it's not marijuana and they can buy it in a gas station," he said. "But it's worse. Kids who take this stuff feel like they're having heart attacks. They feel like they're going to throw up and die."

Stores that sell fake weed buy individual packs for as little as $5 and resell it for $15 to $35, making for big profits, said Michelle Hammontree-Garcia, spokeswoman for Sweetwater.

In Florida, poison control experts fielded 485 calls last year from panicked users and emergency room doctors asking how to treat symptoms. In the first four months of this year, 203 calls came into the Florida Poison Control Center.

"It's just the tip of the iceberg," said Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein, the center's medical director. "We only have data on the people who call in. You may stay sick at home or die at home and go straight to the morgue."

The appeal of synthetic marijuana is that it is legal, said, Dr. Morton Levitt, chairman of the Integrated Medical Science Department at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

"The FDA has no regulations and guidelines for these chemicals, so we really don't know what doses are harmful," said Morton. "There are no voluminous studies to talk about the complications and dangers and long-tem effects. So people are shooting in the dark."

Without research, there is no way of knowing whether users can become addicted, Bernstein said.

"I don't think it's physically addictive, but it's still very early to tell," he said.

Hewitt is afraid of what might happen if he stops using it.

"It's addicting," he said. "I don't want to go just cold turkey. I need to wean myself off of it. After I hang up with you, I am going to go to the gas station and buy my last bag."

His fiancee, Amanda Baldwin, has threatened to leave him if he doesn't quit.

When he's on Spice, sometimes he doesn't recognize her.

"He's either a maniac or comatose," said Baldwin, 27, of Oakland Park. "He will spend hours looking for something that isn't there, not even knowing what he's looking for."

He's not afraid of dying on the stuff. That only happens

to people who overdo it, he says.

"I wasn't thinking when I cut myself," Hewitt said. "I was on Spice. But I don't blame it on the Spice. My dad was arguing with me and I had a knife in my hand. That was bad chemistry."


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