An internal law enforcement bulletin is being passed around law enforcement agencies, warning them of a dangerous trend: a deadly drug being sold as marijuana. This substance has been tested and shown to contain fentanyl, Tramadol, heroin, and traces of meth.
“I think a lot of death could come from this, I think — a lot of people stepping into the realm of overdose unexpectedly,” says recovering addict Chris Ruflin. “I think a lot of teenagers, I think a lot of the younger generation, is going to end up getting ahold of that.”
This faux weed has been found in Ohio and Ontario, Canada and is being researched in Utah, where law enforcement agents claim to have not seen this substance yet.
“When you start seeing something anywhere in the U.S., there’s a good chance it’s going to spread across the country,” says Sgt. Brandon Shearer with the Salt Lake City Police Department.
This substance is not only dangerous for drug users, who could accidentally and easily overdose, but also for police officers, who believe they are handling marijuana. Fentanyl, unlike weed, is hazardous, even to touch. 
A Rise of Accidental Overdoses
This issue was first brought to light in May of this year when this substance was found in Ontario then Ohio. Two 18-year-old drug users in Milton, Ontario were suspected to have accidentally used this fake marijuana when they lost consciousness and began suffering from seizures. Police were able to reverse the effects in time. 
“Be aware that opioids (fentanyl, carfentanil) cannot be detected by sight, smell, or taste. Overdose can occur via inhalation, ingesting or injecting,” reads the press release by the Waterloo Region Integrated Drug Strategy. 
Carfentanil, one of the most potent fentanyl analogs, is primarily used to sedate large animals and has 10,000 times the potency of morphine. Ohio has reported nearly 400 deaths involving this drug between July and December in 2016, and Florida accounted for about 500 deaths that year. These numbers increased drastically in 2017, with Ohio reporting the largest number of deaths contributed to fentanyl. 
Another Fake Marijuana Product
This fentanyl-laced substance isn’t the only harmful drug being disguised and sold as cannabis.
In March of 2018, the Illinois Department of Public Health received reports from users experiencing life-threatening symptoms from synthetic cannabinoids. One symptom was severe bleeding out of their eyes, ears, gums, and nose. This outbreak had 164 public cases and four deaths. Researchers found this synthetic cannabis contained brodifacoum, a blood thinner used in rat poison.  
In Illinois, cannabis is illegal so drug users choose this dangerous alternative, also called Spice and K2, because of its accessibility. There were also cases of this kind of bleeding in Maryland, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Indiana. 
Spice has a stale, pungent, almost fishy smell and looks greenish-brown. It consists of dried plants like tea leaves, dried herbs, and grass sprayed with chemicals to mimic the active ingredient in cannabis. It is packaged and sold for a cheap price. This blend is labeled as unfit for human consumption, yet it’s marketed as a safe and legal alternative to weed. 
The danger of Spice is that it’s impossible to know what chemicals are in each packet and how potent the effects will be. It’s developed in labs in China and other countries then smuggled to the United States, making the formula inconsistent. Contrary to popular belief, addiction is a risk involved with taking this substance, along with withdrawal symptoms like depression, loss of appetite, anxiety, headaches, tremors, nightmares, and suicidal thoughts. 
When a recent spike of overdoses began in Alabama this past April, federal authorities sent out warnings to the public about the dangers of synthetic cannabis.
“Understand that it’s a chemical not mean to be ingested into your body or smoked into your lungs. It can be mind-altering. It can inhibit your ability to function. It also can be life-threatening. You could overdose. You could die,” says Jay Town, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. 
Protection Against Fake Marijuana
Hopefully, with the rise of drug legalization, cannabis will be able to be monitored by the government and its proper, non-toxic form will be available to those who need it. In the meantime, it’s best to avoid these synthetic weed alternatives. While these cases of overdose from street drugs are rare, they do occur since weed can be easily contaminated or faked.
“You don’t know where it came from, you don’t know how it was made, and you’re really taking a huge personal safety risk by taking those substances in,” says Sgt. Brandon Shearer.
- Jim Spiewak. WFXL. It looks like weed, but it’s not: Law enforcement warn of fentanyl disguised as cannabis https://wfxl.com/news/nation-world/it-looks-like-weed-but-its-not-law-enforcement-warn-of-fentanyl-disguised-as-cannabis-10-22-2019-105713006 October 22, 2019
- The Canadian Press. CTV. Police reverse overdose from unknown substance after Milton teens smoke pot https://kitchener.ctvnews.ca/police-reverse-overdose-from-unknown-substance-after-milton-teens-smoke-pot-1.4425198 May 16, 2019
- CTV Kitchener. Cannabis-lookalike found in Ontario contains carfentanil https://kitchener.ctvnews.ca/cannabis-lookalike-found-in-ontario-contains-carfentanil-1.4432636 May 22, 2019
- Julie O’Donnell, PhD; R. Matthew Gladden, PhD; Christine L. Mattson, PhD; Mbabazi Kariisa, PhD. CDC. Notes from the Field: Overdose Deaths with Carfenanil and Other Fentanyl Analogs Detected —10 States, July 2016–June 2017 https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6727a4.htm July 13, 2018
- Jacqueline Howard. CNN. Synthetic cannabinoids, laced with rat poison, tied to fourth death in Illinois https://edition.cnn.com/2018/04/25/health/fake-weed-four-deaths-illinois-bn/index.html April 25, 2018
- NLM. Brodifacoum. https://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/sis/search/a?dbs+hsdb:@term+@DOCNO+3916
- Illinois Department of Public Health. Synthetic Cannabinoids http://www.dph.illinois.gov/topics-services/prevention-wellness/medical-cannabis/synthetic-cannabinoids
- Amy Keller, RN, BSN. Drug Rehab. What Does Spice Look Like? https://www.drugrehab.com/addiction/drugs/spice-k2/what-spice-looks-like/
- Ziva D. Cooper. Adverse Effects of Synthetic Cannabinoids: Management of Acute Toxicity and Withdrawal https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4923337/ June 28, 2016
- Lindsey Connell. Waff. Uptick in synthetic marijuana overdoses in north AL sparks warning https://www.waff.com/2019/04/25/uptick-synthetic-marijuana-overdoses-north-al-sparks-warning/ April 25, 2019