SALT LAKE CITY — Synthetic drugs remain a growing concern for parents, law enforcement and health care professionals across the country.
And they are landing a lot of young people in the hospital.
Drugs like Spice, Black Mamba and K2 — fake marijuana — accounted for 11,206 emergency room visits in 2010, and 75 percent of patients were age 12 to 29, according to a report released Tuesday by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The average age for marijuana-related emergency room visits that year was 30, while the average patient age for synthetic drug-related visits was 24 years, the report states. More than 3,780 patients were high school age, 12 to 17.
"People think of Spice and they think natural substances, but this is not anything natural. It is purely synthetic, purely man-made materials that people are smoking and taking into their bodies," said Dr. Sean Ponce, a family practitioner and addiction specialist associated with St. Mark's Hospital.
In addition to the chemical used to achieve a high, manufacturers of the synthetic drugs use other materials that could be toxic, Ponce said, including plastics and/or potentially harmful heavy metals.
"These are just chemicals that people are making up and trying to make work like marijuana," he said, adding that manufacturers are out to make money off their products.
Ponce said the biggest trouble with the artificial substances is that while the ingredients are unknown, so are the side effects.
"The effects are similar to smoking marijuana, but sometimes and in some people the effects are more severe and more intense, causing psychotic symptoms," he said. "We don't know what effect it can have on the brain or other parts of the body."
Teens are using it, thinking they can get away with it "because it isn't marijuana," Ponce said.
Because synthetic cannabinoids can be purchased with no age restrictions, their popularity among young people has grown, the report states.
A 2011 National Institute on Drug Abuse survey found that 11.4 percent of 12th-graders reported using synthetic marijuana, according to the Utah Attorney General's Office. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported receiving 2,906 calls because of Spice in 2010 and 6,955 in 2011, showing an increased popularity of the drug.
Despite some states, including Utah, prohibiting the use of such substances, synthetic drugs can still be purchased online and in legal retail outlets, such as convenience stores and smoke shops, as manufacturers are adjusting the formula to skirt the laws.
A national ban on buying, selling and manufacturing Spice was enacted in July 2012, but various cities throughout Utah pre-empted that, banning the substances as early as 2010.
"We are still actively monitoring that like we do anything else," said Salt Lake City police detective Rick Wall. "We get tips all the time from people working undercover, and we're pretty diligent about keeping our eyes and ears to the ground on this."
Wall said any time a substance is engineered, designed or created without professional expertise and following regulations, it can result in problems.
The government report encourages educators to include Spice-like drugs in programs designed to prevent use of other illicit drugs. Parents can also discuss the dangers of the drugs with their children and use parental controls for online purchases, the report states.
Synthetic drugs can now be detected as part of a complex urine analysis. When it first became available, it was less noticeable.
Symptoms that can result from use of synthetic marijuana include increased paranoia, agitation, anxiety and nausea. It is classified as a hallucinogenic drug, leading to a state of psychosis.
Ponce, who works at MountainStar Healthcare's South Jordan Family Medicine facility, said the substance can unhealthily raise a person's blood pressure and reduce blood supply to the heart, even resulting in a possible heart attack.
Effects usually subside following drug use but can result in permanent psychosis, depending on the makeup of a person's brain, which is different for everyone, he said. Synthetic marijuana, which can be addictive, has also led to even more potent drug abuse and other dependency problems.
"My advice would be to stay away from it completely. It's bad news," Ponce said.
The report also states that 76 percent of patients who ended up in the emergency room were discharged without any follow-up care, which Ponce said is a "missed opportunity."
"If these kids had such a bad reaction to using Spice that they ended up in the emergency room, they need to be referred to a specialist to help them understand why it happened and what happened and to assess any other addictions," he said, adding that parents and government officials need to remain vigilant in the fight against drug abuse.