Why Synthetic Marijuana Makes People Act Like Zombies

July 14, 2016

Users of increasingly popular street drugs called K2 or spice, which are made from mixtures of herbs laced with synthetic cannabinoids and other chemicals, are showing some incredibly strange behaviors.

Indeed, as the use of these so-called synthetic-marijuana drugs escalate among U.S. teens and young adults — who typically smoke or vape the drugs — TV and newspaper accounts report that users are passing out on sidewalks, stumbling out into traffic, and “looking and acting like zombies.”

People on synthetic cannabinoid products can act anywhere from a bit confused to completely out of their minds, depending on the dose of K2 used and an individual’s susceptibility to the drug, said Dr. Anthony Scalzo, a professor of pediatrics and chief of toxicology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine in Missouri.

“This is extremely dangerous stuff, and it’s getting more dangerous” as manufacturers continually find new ways to tweak the chemicals in the drug to skirt laws that made some compounds used in K2 illegal since March 2011, Scalzo said.

He first discovered the health dangers of K2 in 2010, after noticing a spike in calls to the Missouri Poison Center about young people who had smoked K2. He said these users thought the drug’s effects would be similar to those of marijuana, but they instead experienced stronger symptoms, including hallucinations, extreme agitation, a rapid heartbeat and extremely high blood pressure.

Other changes in mood, thinking and perception have been linked with synthetic cannabinoids. Their use has been associated with paranoia, which is an unreasonable distrust of others; anxiety; panic attacks; and psychotic episodes. Together, these mind-altering behaviors have been labeled as the “zombie effect,” according to K2/Zombie DC, a public-education campaign based in Washington, D.C., that uses zombie-themed messages to raise awareness among teens and parents of these drugs’ dangers.

“Synthetic cannabinoids have chemicals in them that were never meant to be inside the human body,” Scalzo told Live Science.

Some versions of the drugs are illegal and are sold on the street, but the versions that are legal are sold in stores, where their glitzy packages marketed to young people may make them look mainstream, natural and safe, Scalzo noted. But the herbal blends, which may resemble potpourri, “can make people do what they normally would not do either to themselves or to others,” Scalzo said.

Unpredictable effects

In 2011, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) placed five compounds that are commonly found in K2 on its list of illegal substances, to help clamp down on sales. But manufacturers responded by tinkering with the chemicals to sidestep the regulations.

This led to the creation of newer versions of K2 that are even more harmful than early versions, Scalzo said. The newest products on the street can cause low blood pressure and a slow heart rate, and may even result in coma, seizures and kidney damage, he said.

And because the compounds in the drugs can constantly change, their effects on users can be unpredictable and, in some cases, deadly.

Exactly how the compounds in K2/spice work to produce their effects is unclear, Scalzo said. They may act directly on the specific receptors in the brain that can bind these chemicals, and they may change how the brain works in the short term and, potentially, the long term, Scalzo explained.

For example, Scalzo said, when synthetic cannabinoids attach to receptors in the brain and then interact with dopamine — a brain chemical that affects movement — it may cause users’ arms and legs to feel stiff or locked up. But when the drugs interact with serotonin — a brain chemical responsible for sleep and dreams — it may cause users to feel zombie-like and out of it, he said.

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