Often referred to as Spice or K2, synthetic cannabinoids have been linked to a strange incident that happened in Brooklyn, New York, last summer. On July 12, emergency responders were busy over an 11-hour period frantically treating people who appeared to be in a zombie-like trance.
All on one day, nearly three dozen people overdosed on a drug called AMB-FUBINACA, a synthetic cannabinoid 85 times more potent than the normal THC found in plant-grown marijuana. THC is the chemical in cannabis that gives a user the feeling of euphoria or the infamous "high" when smoking weed.
Eyewitnesses and medical personnel described the users as being in a hypnotic state, acting much like a Hollywood zombie. Victims were heard moaning and groaning as their eyes appeared lifeless. Many of their movements were extremely slow and mechanical.
A recently published report in The New England Journal of Medicine revealed test results of blood and urine samples taken from 18 men who were hospitalized after overdosing on the synthetic cannabinoid. According to the paper, the men tested positive for AMB-FUBINACA, known on the streets as AK-47 24 Karat Gold.
Roy Gerona, a chemist at the University of California and one of the report's authors, said calling the drug "synthetic marijuana" is ambiguous and dangerous.
"There is this false idea out there that these drugs are safe, because no one overdoses on marijuana," he said, as cited by the New York Times.
The chemicals contained in fake weed are completely different from what are found in organic marijuana. Often overseas chemists, like labs in China, formulate these drugs based on research done by pharmaceutical companies as well as western universities. Mostly unregulated, these drugs make their way into the U.S. and other countries with people willing to buy them.
"And if you are someone who is regularly drug tested, it will not show up," said Gerona.
As far as the synthetic cannabinoid responsible for the Brooklyn "zombie outbreak" in July, pharmaceutical company Pfizer originally created and patented AMB-FUBINACA in 2009. However, the drug never showed any real promise or benefit for use on humans, so the company ultimately abandoned the research.
Yet, since the patent is public information, it is likely labs in China and other foreign nations were able to copy the formula and develop the synthetic cannabinoid quite easily. Once produced, the drug goes from mass manufacture to dealers to buyers on the street.
Synthetic weed can be easily purchased online, typically through hidden websites, in a powder form for anywhere between $1.95 and $3.80 a gram. The powder is most times mixed with herbal products by the street dealer, turning it into a product that can be smoked.
One sample tested after the Brooklyn zombie outbreak found 16 milligrams of AMB-FUBINACA per gram in the blend. Per the New York Times, dealers can make nearly $500,000 from just one kilogram of the synthetic cannabinoid.
Just as law enforcement catches wind of makers and dealers of synthetic cannabinoids, a new drug is developed and manufactured to throw authorities off the scent.
"There is this cat and mouse chase, with clandestine labs synthesizing a new drug, waiting until it becomes scheduled and then moving to a new compound," Mr. Gerona said.
As newer and more powerful drugs, especially opioids, hit the streets, law enforcement and communities are becoming more and more concerned. After 46 people died, including two teenagers in September, from overdoses caused by a new drug called Pink, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency issued a nationwide alert warning of the dangerous nature of the substance.
While synthetic cannabinoids and other types of strong opioids are not initially designed to kill drug users, Gerona believes the potency of these drugs is quickly approaching the ability "kill thousands of people." The National Institute on Drug Abuse just recently received a $2.7 million grant to study the effects and dangers of designer drugs like the one that caused the zombie outbreak in Brooklyn.
[Featured Image by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]