Over just three days in a single Pennsylvania county this month, more than a hundred people reportedly overdosed on a type of synthetic marijuana known as K2.
Between July 7 and July 10, 102 people in Lancaster County were treated for K2 overdoses, according to CNN. By July 14, an additional 56 people suffered similar afflications, bringing the total number of K2 overdose patients in the county to 158 in just one week.
C. Robert May, director of Lancaster Emergency Medical Services, said none of the overdoses were fatal but patients’ symptoms were sometimes serious.
“We’re seeing very sick patients, individuals who have very low blood pressure, are unconscious, and they’re getting admitted to intensive care,” May told CBS News. He added that the influx of overdose patients was “taxing” to local hospitals that are already “well above capacity.”
Asked to explain the troubling increase, May said a dip in the availability of heroin may have contributed to a spike in demand for the synthetic drug. Either that, he said, or “just some bad K2 has hit the street.”
Unlike real marijuana, which is an organic drug that has never been reported as the sole cause of a fatal overdose, synthetic marijuana can be very dangerous and even deadly.
Typically composed of shredded plant material sprayed with lab-made cannabinoids ― the same psychoactive compound found in organic weed — synthetic marijuana is “far more powerful” than the real McCoy, Barbra Roach, a Denver-based special agent at the Drug Enforcement Administration, said in an earlier HuffPost interview.
It’s often impossible, however, to tell just how strong a dose of synthetic marijuana will be.
“[Some] could be 1-to-800 times more powerful, some are 25 times more powerful, some are 5 times,” said Roach. “Because it’s lab-created, [the drug’s makers] are constantly trying to change the analogs in it and the compounds so it’s like an unknown and then it’s not technically illegal, at least under federal law.”
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the chemical composition can differ wildly between different batches of synthetic marijuana — which, other than the moniker K2, is also sold under brand names including Spice, Black Mamba, Kush and Kronic. As a result, “these products are likely to contain substances that cause dramatically different effects than the user might expect,” the institute said.
Doctors have repeatedly compared consuming the drug to “playing a game of Russian roulette.” Known side effects include seizures, hallucinations, convulsions and kidney damage, as well as extremely negative psychological effects, such as suicidal tendencies and erratic, violent behavior.
Misleadingly marketed as a “legal” or “safer” alternative to real cannabis, synthetic marijuana’s popularity has ballooned in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the drug has been particularly in-demand among teens and young adults “seeking an alternative to marijuana or a new experience with a hallucinogenic drug.”
Many of the overdose patients in Lancaster County this month have been adults in their 20s, said May. Some have been teenagers.