A form of synthetic marijuana known as "K2" is sending young people to the hospital with racing heart beats, extreme anxiety and hallucinations, toxicologists warn.
In recent months, physicians and toxicologists say more young people have been showing up in emergency rooms after smoking synthetic marijuana. Despite the side effects, K2 is legal in many states, although many state legislators are rushing to pass legislation banning it.
Since the start of 2010, the American Association of Poison Control Centers has received nearly 2,000 reports of people who became ill after smoking K2, compared to about a dozen in 2009. Poison control officials described some of the symptoms as "life-threatening."
K2 is often marketed as incense and sold in packets of herbs laced with synthetic marijuana at "head shops," gas stations, convenience stores and online for about $30 to $40 per three-gram bag. The drug also goes by other names, including Spice, Spice Gold, Spice Diamond, Yucatan Fire, Solar Flare, K2 Summit, Genie, PEP Spice, and Fire n Ice, according to the U.S. Drug Intelligence Center.
While people who smoke K2 think they're going to experience deep relaxation and euphoria, those who end up in the hospital report unpleasant experiences, said Dr. Anthony Scalzo, medical director of the Missouri Poison Center and chief of toxicology at St. Louis University.
"The classic symptoms are agitation, anxiety, racing heart beat, elevated blood pressure," Scalzo said. "And some kids are having very negative psychotropic experiences. One said, 'I felt like I went down to hell'."
In some cases, the drug also causes vomiting, tremors and seizures, according to federal drug abuse agencies.
In the United States, the Drug Enforcement Agency has listed K2 as a "drug or chemical of concern." But because it isn't officially "scheduled," it remains legal under federal law, according to published reports.
Alarmed by the rise in popularity, several states have rushed to outlaw K2. Earlier this year, Kansas became the first state to ban K2. Other states that have outlawed it include Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Alabama, Michigan and Illinois (where K2 remains legal until the end of the year). There are similar bills pending in many other states, including Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, New York, New Jersey and Louisiana.