You may have read about the nearly one hundred cases of drug overdose in New Haven, Conn., involving so-called synthetic marijuana, a form known as K2. The ODs occurred over a three or four day period in a large city park designed as a ‘family-friendly’ recreation space. Once word of a supply of cheap, available K2 hit the streets, customers flocked. And because the batch was contaminated or otherwise unusually toxic, a “mass overdose event” followed.

No fatalities, fortunately. But such incidents have been occurring with some regularity around the nation. This one surely won’t be the last.

Most of us in the addictions field know the basics of synthetics: they’re not actually cannabis, but other plant material that has been treated with chemicals of uncertain origin. Spraying/ soaking leafy things with hallucinogens is a practice I first encountered way back in the early 80’s in the Washington DC area. At the time, the culprits were cigarettes or joints that had been dipped in PCP, known as “Boat”. The outcome was similar. In some cases, users became violently ill and had to be rushed to the ER. In others, they wound up in crisis centers with what appeared to be toxic or drug-induced psychosis.

That sort of behavior will be noticed by the media, then as now.  After a while the more sensationalized accounts are replaced by better information.

Here’s a good overview from April 2018, courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control. Click on the various subheadings for links to more specific discussion.

Why are substances like K2 so popular? Several reasons.

  • They’re cheap, and where available, easy to find.
  • Some users still confuse it with cannabis — a drug they feel safe using.
  • It’s unlikely to show up in a conventional urine drug test

At this stage, sudden spikes in drug use are likely to be attributed to the ills of society.  Here’s a comment made to CNN by the local police chief: “It’s a nationwide problem that people are self-medicating for several different reasons.” No doubt there’s some truth in that, but the fact remains that people are attracted to drugs because in a very limited, short-term sense, they work. They can change the way people feel for the better, and in that sense are self-reinforcing. Even if society miraculously eliminated all its other problems, many folks would still be attracted to drug use. Some experts have gone so far as to portray intoxication (or the need to change consciousness) as a fourth drive, along with eating, sleeping, and sex. I don’t agree, but they were able to make a case for it.

I’d be surprised if many of the victims in New Haven hadn’t used synthetic marijuana before, with (from their perspective at least) satisfactory results. When the shock of this latest overdose wears off, some will forget the bad parts and give the drug another try.

That’s why public education efforts are so important. Not scare tactics, but real information designed to encourage rational decision-making.