Why Is Synthetic Marijuana So Toxic?
Norbert Nagel, Wikimedia Commons
Medical marijuana gets all the headlines, but many legal weeds have traditions as medicines too. Although homeowners often consider these plants as lawn outlaws, weeds can serve as a floral pharmacy. However, would-be patients of the plants should consult a doctor before self-medicating.
Cichorium intybus, the light blue flower frequently seen along roads, provides the main commercial source of the compound inulin. Patients take inulin to fight high blood fats, including cholesterol and triglycerides, according to WebMD. Research published in Diabetes & Metabolism Journal suggests that inulin intake benefits women with type-2 diabetes by reducing the rate of blood sugar increase after eating. Inulin promotes the growth of certain bacteria in the intestines. While some believe this can help digestion, others suffer serious flatulence when the inulin-fed bacteria build up.
Some people add the dried and roasted root to coffee. Chickory coffee is especially popular in New Orleans.
Böhringer Friedrich, Wikimedia Commons
Trifolium pratense contains chemicals known as isoflavones. These chemicals can act like the female hormone estrogen in the body. Doctors have examined the clover chemicals as a treatment for hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause. However, doctors warn that women with a history or risk of breast cancer should avoid isoflavones, since estrogen-like chemicals have been associated with increased incidence of some cancers.
H. Zell, Wikimedia Commons
Silybum marianum has a 2,000 year history as a liver medicine. Modern research has looked at thistle extracts as a treatment for alcohol-induced liver damage. Substances in milk thistle, particularly the chemical silymarin, may protect the liver from damage after a person takes an overdose of other medications, including acetaminophen (Tylenol). Milk thistle may also be an antidote to poison from the deathcap mushroom (Amanita phalloides). Animal studies found that milk thistle completely counteracted the poison if given within 10 minutes of poisoning, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Muffet, Wikimedia Commons
Native Americans used the milkweed (Asclepias sp.) as a contraceptive, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The milky, white sap that gives the plant its name served to remove warts. However, milkweeds also contain chemicals known as cardiac glycosides. These chemicals can cause severe illness in humans and livestock. Monarch butterfly caterpillars eat milkweed and build up high concentrations of glycosides, which makes the insects nasty tasting to predators.
Tony Hisgett, Wikimedia Commons
Ancient Greeks and Romans used horsetail (Equisetum arvense) to stop bleeding, heal ulcers and wounds, and treat tuberculosis and kidney problems. My wife drinks horsetail tea to flush out her body’s system and help lose weight. The tea has a mildly bitter flavor, similar to chamomile. Research published in Ethnopharmacolgy found that horsetail tea increases urination which corroborates my wife’s contention that the plant is a diuretic, or a substance that increases urination. However, doctors recommend taking a multivitamin when drinking significant amounts of horesetail tea, because it can flush nutrients, such as vitamin B1, thiamin and potassium, out of one's system as well.
J. Carmichael, Wikimedia Commons
In the past, Europeans used remedies made from dandelion (Taraxacum sp.) roots, leaves and flowers to treat fever, boils, eye problems, diabetes, and diarrhea, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine take dandelions for stomach ailments and breast problems, such as inflammation or lack of milk flow. Dandelion leaves taste similar to spinach and contains vitamins A, B, C, and D, along with iron, potassium, and zinc.
Uwe H. Friese, Wikimedia Commons
Urtica dioica can put the hurt on an hiker in shorts, but historically the plant has served to treat aching muscles and joints, eczema, arthritis and gout. People still use the plant to treat joint pain, and some studies have suggested that the plant can treat arthritis. Another study found that capsules of dried stinging nettle may reduce the symptoms of hay fever. Europeans frequently use stinging nettle root to treat bladder problems. Boiled nettle makes a side dish similar to collared greens.
For those who brush alongside stinging nettle, a remedy to the sting is often found growing nearby. Applying crushed up dandelion, horsetail, Aloe vera, jewelweed or the leaf of a dock or lock plant can counter the acid in the sting.
Forest and Kim Starr, Wikimedia Commons
Like many of the medicinal weeds in this list, purslane (Portulaca oleracea) also makes a healthy snack. The plant contains a high content of omega-3 fatty acids. I ate some that grew in my yard and found it was somewhat sour. A little bit was good, but too much would be overpowering in a salad. In traditional Chinese medicine, purslane treats genito-urinary tract infections. Research published in Phytomedicine found that the plant reduced problems with cognition in older mice.
Robert Steers/NPS, Wikimedia Commons
Since the age of the ancient Greek doctors have used plantains (Plantago sp., the weed in sidewalk cracks, not the fruit) to speed wound healing. In the training manual Survival, Evasion and Recovery, the U.S. Department of Defense recommends plantain as a poultice on wounds or as a nutrient-rich tea to treat diarrhea.
Julia Adamson, photographer in the Saskatoon area, Wikimedia Commons
Traditionally, healers use burdock (Arctium sp.) to clear toxins from the blood and increase urination, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. The plant also is used to treat skin ailments, such as eczema, acne, and psoriasis. The leaves and roots of burdock are edible and contains inulin, like chicory, so they may aid digestion and/or cause a nasty case of flatulence. Burdock also contains high quantities of antioxidants that can prevent damage to cells.
More than 10 percent of high school seniors recently admitted to using synthetic marijuana, also known by nicknames like Spice, K2, fake weed and Moon Rocks. And among that age group, the drug is second in popularity only to the old-fashioned pot.
But despite its easy accessibility and reputation as “natural,” Spice sends thousands of people to emergency rooms each year with side effects ranging from seizures to hallucinations to heart attacks.
In a new study, scientists have come closer to understanding why chemical versions of marijuana can be so toxic, with some evidence that some people may be more susceptible to those dangers than others.
The researchers have also developed a test to detect this new class of drugs in urine, which is an important step toward discouraging their use.
“You have individuals that may be on probation or workplace drug monitoring and they can migrate to these drugs because we don’t have tests for them,” said Jefferey Moran, a toxicologist and analytical chemist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock and the Arkansas Department of Health. “If they know a test is available, they may be encouraged not to take the drug.”
“I want people, kids especially, to understand that these things are not safe,” he added. “They are not marijuana. They’re toxic. They’re dangerous. They can kill you.”
Spice is just one of many emerging designer drugs that are made to mimic well established but harder-to-get substances. Some synthetic drugs act like stimulants, others like opiates, others like hallucinogens.
Synthetic marijuana works by stimulating the same receptors in the brain that react to THC, the active ingredient in cannabis. The intended result is to deliver a pot-like high.
But one difference between the nature-made and manmade versions, Moran said, is that the plant activates receptors only partially, while drugs like Spice fully stimulate receptors, making them far more potent.
Because designer drugs are new and constantly being reformulated, they manage to skirt regulation, often showing up in gas stations and convenience stores with flashy marketing that appeals to kids. Users get the message that they’re fun and safe, but the reality is often much darker.
To better understand how Spice works in the human body, Moran and colleagues developed a new method to analyze urine samples taken from 15 people who visited emergency rooms after taking the drug.
The researchers were able to reliably detect metabolites -- or substances produced by the body as it breaks down the drugs -- in all of the samples, the team reported in the journal Analytical Chemistry.
Preliminary results also suggested that there were differences in how people metabolized the drugs. Some appeared to more effectively detoxify Spice. Others were worse at detoxification, making them more likely to react poorly.
Because the researchers didn’t know how long it had been since each individual had taken the drugs or how much they had smoked, it’s possible that those differences were irrelevant.
But biological confirmation that different people process Spice differently would explain repeated anecdotal evidence that some kids react horribly to the same drug that their friends tolerate just fine, said Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of The Partnership at Drugfree.org in New York.
Figuring out which groups of people are more vulnerable could help public health officials target their messages to people who are most susceptible.
“Right now, we have the problem that this is kind of like Russian roulette,” Pasierb said. “You just don’t know if you’re the kid or this is the time you’re going to have a bad reaction.”
Compounding those unknowns is the fact that unregulated designer drugs are made with questionable materials that are constantly changing, he added. They may contain wood shavings or unidentified herbs. Even two batches of drugs from the same brand can contain wildly different amounts of active ingredients.
One batch may be five times more potent than marijuana and deliver a positive experience, but the next one could have 250 times the potency and be deadly.
“I’m always impressed that kids come in to focus groups drinking bottled water instead of tap but they smoke something like this,” Pasierb said. “It’s like lawn chemicals put together to have the desired impact. This is a particularly dangerous way to get high.”