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Connecticut Health Officials Respond To Synthetic Marijuana Overdoses

NOEL KING, HOST:

More than 100 people have overdosed in just the last two days in a park in New Haven, Conn. Initial tests show that the drug responsible is something that's widely known as synthetic marijuana. It's also called K2 or Spice. It's possible that the drugs that caused the overdose were laced with an opioid. I'm on the line now with Michael Baumann of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Good morning.

MICHAEL BAUMANN: Good morning.

KING: OK. I want you to help us clear up a couple things here, and the first is, this drug is widely being called - including in news reports - synthetic marijuana. You say that's not right. That's not what this is. Can you explain what it is?

BAUMANN: Yes. Yes. So I think the term synthetic marijuana gives a false impression. These synthetic cannabinoids - is what they're more correctly called. Synthetic cannabinoids are manmade chemicals. They're designed to stimulate cannabinoid receptor sites in the brain, and these receptors are part of an endogenous cannabinoid system that is essential for normal brain function. Importantly, the synthetic cannabinoid chemicals were originally created as research tools to study the brain. The substances were subsequently diverted for recreational use. Most of these synthetic cannabinoids are made in Asian laboratories and trafficked over the Internet. Substances are purchased by cartels or street dealers, who dilute the chemicals and solvents and spray the chemicals onto inert plant material. And that's what's sold as K2 or Spice.

KING: OK. So I could see why people might think, OK, it's synthetic pot. It's not. Let me ask you another question. So I've seen reports that some people are using this drug because they don't think that regular urine tests will detect it. Is that the case?

BAUMANN: Yes. That's absolutely true. Today, there are two groups of people who are using synthetic cannabinoids. In the first group would be those people who are using it to avoid detection of drug use. And this would include probationers, parolees, military personnel, athletes because, as you mentioned, these synthetic cannabinoids are not detected by traditional toxicology screens. But there has also been a steep rise in misuse of synthetic cannabinoids among the homeless and indigent populations because the substances are very inexpensive, and they afford a very cheap way of getting high.

KING: Why are they so cheap?

BAUMANN: Well, they're cheap because, again, they're made in these Asian laboratories in bulk quantities. They can be purchased very cheaply and then sprayed onto plant material, bagged up and sold at very low price.

KING: All right. A hundred people overdosed in a park in Connecticut. That's extraordinary. How do you treat an overdose?

BAUMANN: Well, this is a - you bring up a significant challenge for first responders and clinicians. One of the problems is that targeted intervention - whenever you have these mini epidemics of overdoses, a targeted intervention with a specific antidote is often not possible because the precise substances ingested are not known. In the case of the synthetic cannabinoids, there are no FDA-approved antidotes.

KING: Oh.

BAUMANN: And so clinicians can only treat symptoms as they arise.

KING: Michael Baumann, chief of the designer drug research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Thanks.

BAUMANN: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "VAULTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.