In recent months, the mainstream, scientific, and marijuana-friendly media has been flooded by horror stories about the dangers of synthetic pot.
The laundry list of symptoms experienced by individuals across the country is both lengthy and shocking: hallucination, paranoia, seizures, cardiac trouble, stroke, kidney, and brain damage, and in at least three cases death. Now, an article on the Forbes site has looked at the impact of synthetic pot on the brain in an attempt to learn why the substance has wreaked such havoc on users.
Both synthetic cannabis and THC, the active ingredient in pot, are agonists, which are chemicals that bind to protein molecules in the brain called receptors and trigger a biological response. Both substances activate the cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1), which is located throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems.
But synthetic cannabis is a full agonist, which means that it delivers the maximum amount of biological response to the user, rather than the partial impact of THC. “Its potency can be up to 100 or more times greater that THC,” said Paul Prather, PhD, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. “It takes much less to produce maximal effects in the brain…and thus not surprising that their use may result in life-threatening adverse effects.”
CB1 receptors are also found in nearly every brain region, which also accounts for the wide array of areas in the body affected by the drug. Episodes of memory loss, seizure, and even psychosis are triggered when the drug activates receptors in the hippocampus, temporal cortex, and prefrontal cortex, respectively, which are the regions of the brain that maintain such responses. Even cardiac and respiratory problems caused by the drug are due to the impact on the brain stem, which monitors those regions.
When the body processes a substance, either through digestion or other chemical means, it produces simple molecules called metabolites. In the case of most drugs, the body deactivates the drug as it metabolizes it, but it appears that some of the metabolites produced by synthetic pot actually bind to the receptor along with the drug itself, essentially doubling the impact. “This isn’t the case with THC,” noted Prather. “The synthetic metabolites seem to retain full activity relative to the parent compound. So the ability of our body to deactivate them is decreased.”
Finally, the basic nature of how the drug is made creates a myriad of possible responses in the user. As law enforcement officials have found, there are hundreds of different kinds of synthetic cannabinoids available in the market; as soon as one variety is banned, the manufacturers alter the contents to keep their product off the radar. The problem is that users have no idea what they’re getting with each brand, or even within individual packets of the same strain.
“How much synthetic cannabis is in there? You have no idea how much you’re getting,” said Prather. Most synthetic concoctions contain more than one cannabinoid, and often contain “hot spots,” areas where the drug is more concentrated than others.
As scientists attempt to gather more data about the impact of synthetic drugs on humans, they also readily admit that they are fighting a war of attrition. “[We] have a poor understanding of how these drugs will affect you, and the public has an even poorer understanding,” said medical toxicologist Jeff Lapoint, MD.
“People think, ‘Oh, it’s just fake marijuana.’ [But] the safety perception is way off. This is not the same thing. You are experimenting with unknown compounds. You’re being a guinea pig. These drugs are a world of difference from THC.”
Over a dozen groups concerned about the burgeoning prescription painkiller epidemic called for the resignation of the head of the Food and Drug Administration, Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg, in a letter released on Wednesday.
Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, a 900-member advocacy group that petitioned (and were rejected by) the FDA to drastically restrict opioid use, and the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse, were among those who signed the letter addressed to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, who oversees the FDA and other health agencies.
The FDA has been under intense scrutiny from public health officials, politicians, and law enforcement alike for approving a powerful new painkiller called Zohydro last October, against the recommendation of its own medical advisers.
“We are especially frustrated by the FDA’s continued approval of new, dangerous, high-dose opioid analgesics that are fueling high rates of addiction and overdose deaths,” the letter read.
Zohydro is the first pure hydrocodone medication to be approved by the FDA. It is up to five times stronger than other opioid medications currently on the market. The fact that it is easily crushable is problematic, because it can be snorted or injected.
Critics of the drug fear the Zohydro’s potential for abuse and addiction. Since Zohydro’s FDA approval, members of Congress from West Virginia, Massachusetts, and Kentucky have introduced legislation to ban the drug, and attorneys general from 28 states have asked the FDA to revoke Zohydro’s approval or require that the pills be reformulated to make them harder to crush for snorting or injection.
Commissioner Hamburg, who has led the agency since 2009, has defended the drug’s approval by saying that it fills an important medical niche.
“Dr. Hamburg’s support for using opioids to treat chronic non-cancer pain is squarely at odds with efforts by the CDC to discourage this widespread practice,” the letter said.
Deaths associated with prescription painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin have more than tripled over the last 20 years to an estimated 17,000 in 2011.
A Department of Health and Human Services spokesman, Tait Sye, said that opioid abuse “is a serious issue and one that the secretary is focused on.”
“Secretary Burwell appreciates hearing from stakeholders on the important issue of prescription opioid abuse, and looks forward to responding to their letter,” Sye added.
A scourge of “drunk female guests” are to blame for recriminations against fraternities—that is, according to Bill Frezza, who wrote an entire Forbes column about it. The article was posted yesterday and deleted soon after, but that was all the time the Internet needed to respond to his inflammatory post.
Frezza’s column, “Drunk Female Guests Are The Gravest Threat to Fraternities,” has lived on in its cached form. In the piece, Frezza argued that female students who binge drink before going to fraternity house parties are more responsible for frat closures and suspensions than the actions of the frat members themselves.
The fact that it is not “socially acceptable” for bouncers to eject drunk female students from parties is the problem, according to Frezza, who is president of the Beta Foundation, the house corporation for the Chi Phi fraternity at MIT.
“In our age of sexual equality, why drunk female students are almost never characterized as irresponsible jerks is a question I leave to the feminists,” he wrote.
His recommendations included identifying drunks at the door and barring them from house parties no matter “how pretty or flirtatious a young lady is; if she’s visibly intoxicated, don’t let her in.” He added a particularly disturbing anecdote after this tidbit of advice: “Although we were once reprimanded for turning away a drunk female student who ultimately required an ambulance when she passed out on our sidewalk, it would have gone a lot worse for us had she collapsed inside.”
And to avoid “false” accusations of rape “months after the fact triggered by regrets over a drunken hook-up or anger after a failed relationship,” Brezza recommended to “never, ever take a drunk female guest to your bedroom."
Brezza’s tone was ominous, warning that “all it takes is one [woman] to bring an entire fraternity system down.”
But TIME writer Eliana Dockterman argued that women are not the biggest threat to fraternities, but rather that fraternities are the biggest threat to themselves.
She noted that binge drinking within fraternities is so great that insurance companies factor it into their calculations for the organizations.
“The National Association of Insurance Commissioners ranked fraternities as the sixth worst insurance risk in this country, just behind hazardous waste disposal companies and asbestos contractors,” Douglas Feinberg, who represents victims of violence, wrote for TIME. “One insurance broker for fraternities boasts of handling more than 6,000 claims and $60,000,000 in payouts.”
In addition, sexual assault is so rampant in fraternity culture that it can be quantified.
“Of the many thousands of insurance claims that are made against fraternities each year, those for sexual assault are the second most common, so predictable, in fact, that the related expenses are built into annual budgets,” Caitlin Flanagan, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, wrote for TIME. Flanagan recently completed an in-depth investigation of fraternity culture.
Meanwhile, Forbes fired Frezza soon after pulling his column.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pushing for more relaxed drug laws throughout the state, including decriminalizing marijuana and reducing minor drug possession to a misdemeanor.
Under his proposed plan, anyone caught with a gram or less of a controlled substance would not receive a felony charge. Emanuel is also seeking to expand Chicago’s marijuana ticketing law throughout the state, which would allow police to issue tickets of $250 to $500 for someone caught with up to 15 grams of pot — the equivalent of about 25 cigarette-sized joints.
“It's not just about saving taxpayer dollars. It's also about saving nonviolent offenders from a lifetime spent in and out of the criminal justice system," said Emanuel. "A felony conviction can slam the door on someone's future and make it harder to go to school, apply for financial aid and find housing. There are times when a felony conviction is no doubt warranted, but we have to ask ourselves whether it's too high a price for using drugs."
However, not all Chicago politicians are on board with this proposal. Many believe that Emanuel is only offering to relax drug sentences in exchanges for mandatory minimum sentences for gun possession. State Rep. Ken Dunkin, chairman of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, said that Emanuel’s plan amounted to “political grandstanding.”
Last June, Chicago filed a lawsuit against five major drug companies, including Johnson & Johnson, accusing them of creating addicts by pushing for excessive use of opioid painkillers. Lawyers for the city have accused these drug companies of hiding the risks associated with painkiller use while overstating the benefits. The city is seeking unspecified monetary damages, but reported spending $9,500,000 on paying for nearly 400,000 claims for opioid prescription fills.
A Montana woman who faced felony drug and child endangerment charges for allegedly taking drugs when she was 12 weeks pregnant has had her case dismissed by a judge.
Casey Gloria Allen, 21, was charged with putting her unborn fetus at "substantial risk of serious bodily injury or death" by ingesting opiates, benzodiazepines, and THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana. Thorin Geist, Ravalli County deputy attorney, argued that a law passed last year by the Montana legislature, which modified the state’s homicide statutes to include criminalizing conduct related to killing “the fetus of another,” would naturally extend to killing or injuring one’s own fetus.
But District Judge Jeffrey Langton ordered on Monday that the state’s charges be dismissed because the state homicide statutes make no references to “fetus.” Allen’s attorney had argued that moving forward with the charges could create a "slippery slope where the state could arrest and file charges against pregnant women for engaging in any behavior deemed unhealthy to the fetus, which might include ingesting drugs (legally prescribed or not), drinking alcohol, smoking, failing to wear seat belts in a vehicle, not eating well, and exercising too little or too much."
Last April, the Tennessee legislature approved a bill to criminally prosecute addicted pregnant women if their child “is born addicted, is harmed or dies because of the drug.” They would be free of prosecution until the fetus becomes “viable” at 24 weeks, but any charges would be removed if they voluntarily entered a treatment program.
While bill sponsor and State Rep. Terri Weaver called the bill “an intervention,” most major medical associations are opposed to it and believe it will discourage drug-addicted pregnant women from seeking both prenatal care and help for their addiction.
- Chinese Restaurant Caught Selling Noodles Laced With Opium [CNN]
- Forbes Columnist Declares Drunk Females 'Gravest Threat' To Frats [Gawker]
- Texas Man Allegedly Bought School Board Votes With Cocaine [Talking Points Memo]
- Drugs Stolen From Minnesota Pharmacy Linked To Overdose [MPR News]
- Man Sues MSG After Drunken Brawl At Billy Joel Concert [TMZ]
- Sacramento Kings Sportscaster Kayte Chirstensen Arrested For DUI [TMZ]
- Florida Pill Mill Owners Sentenced To 30 Years In Prison [Tampa Bay Times]
- Woman Claimed To Be Dead Sister During DUI Arrest [Fox News]