Health & Fitness

Talk with your teens about the risks of synthetic drugs

As the parent of any teen will know, young adults are highly attuned to trends — be it a clothing brand, the latest Youtuber, or an app — especially if they think their peers are involved. However, in the last few years, these fast-emerging trends have included novel drugs.

“Synthetic” versions of prohibited drugs are ones that have been chemically altered to evade laws banning their sale and use. As law enforcement and legislation race to keep up with the labs involved in the drug trade, new drugs are constantly being developed to feed the demand from people struggling with addiction — or kids wanting to be part of the next big thing.

Synthetic marijuana, first known as “Spice” or “K2”, is created by spraying various chemicals — some known as “cannabinoids” — on to incense or other dried plant materials. The product is then smoked. Packets are purchased online and at some convenience stores, even though synthetic marijuana is banned in Florida.

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Wendy Stephan, MPH, CHES and doctoral candidate PhD., is a health education coordinator for the Florida Poison Information Center at University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Recently, poison centers in the Midwest sounded the alarm about three deaths associated with synthetic marijuana. The deaths in Illinois were associated with the contamination of these drugs with brodifacoum — a chemical commonly used as rat poison. This poison caused serious bleeding disorders (bruising, bleeding gums, blood in the urine or vomit) that led to over 100 hospitalizations and the need for prolonged treatment. Florida’s Poison Centers recently treated the first Florida case of exposure to brodifacoum, and there may be more before the source of the product is identified.

It is not clear why the poison was added to the drug, although researchers believe it was done intentionally. Even though the rat poison epidemic has most recently dominated the news, synthetic marijuana can have unpleasant effects on its own. In the past few years, the Florida Poison Information Center at University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital has treated cases of people exposed to “fake weed.” These patients’ symptoms have ranged from agitation and rapid heart rate to vomiting and seizures.

The chemical in regular marijuana that causes a “high,” tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), has weak bonds to receptors in the brain whereas the synthetic versions can be hundreds of times more potent. Synthetic marijuana products have been found to contain a wide range of active chemicals and concentrations. These drugs have not been well studied in humans, so researchers do not yet know their long- or short-term effects on regular users. People who use these drugs are essentially experimenting on themselves. This is particularly concerning for young adults, whose brains continue to develop well into their 20s.

The good news is that the popularity of synthetic marijuana with Florida youth has declined sharply in recent years. According to the 2017 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey, only 3.5 percent of high school students report using it, compared with 13 percent back in 2012 right after it first appeared. E-cigarettes remain in fashion with about 31 percent of surveyed high school students reporting vaping in some form. Recent research indicates that teens may not know if the e-juice they are buying contains nicotine, a highly addictive substance. Some teens use e-cigs to vape THC or other illicit substances.

The current crisis highlights the need to talk to teens, and even tweens, about the dangers of novel drugs, both due to the risk of contamination but also the use of untried chemicals. As with any illegal drug, there is no going back for a refund and no suing the manufacturer for a bad experience or catastrophic medical expenses. Talk to children about the risks of novel drugs and encourage them to be smart consumers in general. Urge them to ask question and do some research.

As parents, you can also do some digging. Ask questions when you hear your kids talking about a substance you have never heard of. Ask what drugs your teen is hearing about online or in the hallways at school. Keep the door open to discussions about drugs to demystify the subject. After all, if parents know about it, it isn’t cool anymore!

The poison control center at University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to answer questions about any type of drug, supplement or chemical. Calls to 1-800-222-1222 are confidential and free. Poison specialists are among the first to hear about the new drugs on the market and their effects. Make use of this important resource to help keep your family safe from this epidemic — and the next.

Wendy Stephan, MPH, CHES and doctoral candidate PhD., is a health education coordinator for the Florida Poison Information Center at University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital. For more information, visit