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Synthetic marijuana: A very real contraband hazard

If synthetic marijuana is popular in your region, help spread the word of the dangers and misconceptions about this drug


This photo provided Friday, Aug. 7, 2015 by New York Police Department shows packets of synthetic marijuana seized after a search warrant was served at a newsstand in Brooklyn, N.Y.

AP Photo/New York Police Department

Have you come across synthetic marijuana in your correctional setting? It is one of the newest mind-altering substances sweeping through the drug culture and is particularly popular with high school students and young adults. So, consider synthetic marijuana use with youthful offenders showing erratic behavior; especially young men. Recently, a group of New York jail inmates were hospitalized due to synthetic marijuana effects after smoking the substance when it was smuggled into the jail. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is reporting increased poison control calls due to smoking the substance – it’s far from harmless.

What’s in a Name?
Synthetic marijuana has many street names, the most common being Spice or K2. Other common names include bizzaro, train wreck, fake weed, and skunk. For the remainder of this post I’ll use spice interchangeably with synthetic marijuana. Street names are location specific, however, so find out the terms used for the substance in your area. If it is becoming popular in your region, you will want to ask about use specifically at the booking evaluation.

Neither Legal nor Harmless
Although synthetic marijuana was originally billed as safe, non-toxic and even a ‘legal’ marijuana, it’s nothing of the sort. Spice is made by spraying a chemical version of THC, the psychoactive property of natural marijuana, onto a dried plant material. In 2012 the DEA made the 5 main chemicals used in synthetic marijuana illegal. Up until that time there was no regulation and spice was advertised as ‘legal marijuana.’

The underground drug industry has no quality control so the amount of the THC chemical used varies widely. In addition, the synthetic version of THC is more highly psychoactive than natural pot so the intensity of user response can be overpowering. So in addition to a similar high produced by the natural substance, spice often also produces palpitations, fever, psychotic episodes, and even seizures. This response is different among users, meaning one person may experience a normal marijuana-like response while another may respond with hallucinations.

An acute psychotic response to synthetic marijuana has been dubbed spicophrenia by some practitioners. Symptoms include agitation, paranoia, delusions, and assaultive behavior. The psychosis can also include disorganized thinking, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, or depression. Practitioners have successfully treated the condition by using anti-anxiety and anti-psychotic drugs like Ativan and Haldol.

Spotting Spice Withdrawal
Inmates may enter the criminal justice system due to aggressive behaviors influenced by spice use so booking officers and health staff should be aware of the potential and evaluate accordingly. Once in the system, though, spice users, especially long-term users, may experience withdrawal. The most common noted withdrawal symptoms are agitation, irritability, anxiety, and mood swings. Mild withdrawal can be managed symptomatically but severe withdrawal involving severe agitation, psychosis or suicidal thoughts requires medical management. Few management protocols are yet available, but symptoms have been managed with Valium and Seroquel.

Get the Word Out
If synthetic marijuana is popular in your region, help spread the word of the dangers and misconceptions about this drug. These designer drugs are more dangerous than natural substances and more appealing to youth. Here is an example of a poster that can be use (provided by

Is synthetic marijuana an issue in your correctional facility? Share your experiences in the comments section of this post.

Dr. Schoenly has been a nurse for 30 years and is currently specializing in correctional healthcare. She is an author and educator seeking to improve patient safety and professional nursing practice behind bars. Her web-presence, Correctional Nurse, provides information and support to those working in correctional health care. Her books, Essentials of Correctional Nursing and The Correctional Health Care Patient Safety Handbook are available in print and digital on Amazon.

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