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For the last few years, the use of synthetic cannabinoids – also known as K2, Spice, Fake Weed, and over 500 other street names – has been on the rise.

In a single three-day period in 2016, at least 130 people in New York overdosed on K2. In 2015, 10 deaths were linked to its use. Additionally, the CDC reported a dangerous spike in use across the country in the past year.

You might be surprised by these figures. In a devious twist, the drug has been marketed by word-of-mouth as “safe,” “natural,” or “just like Marijuana.” The truth is that K2 is neither “safe” nor “natural” and is chemically quite different than marijuana. But how many Americans truly know the dangers associated with the drug? To find out, we surveyed 2,000 people in the U.S. about their knowledge of K2.

What Do We Know About K2?

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The truth about synthetic cannabinoids is this: They are a collection of synthetic, mind-altering chemicals. Sometimes they’re sprayed or dried onto plants and then smoked. Sometimes they’re inhaled through a vaporizer or e-cigarette.

Despite often being called “fake weed,” these chemicals have little to no relationship with actual marijuana and can be anywhere from two to 100 times more potent than THC – the ingredient in marijuana that causes the high. This unpredictable potency means a greater risk of side effects, including overdose and even death.

Almost as scary as the drug itself is the fact that Americans know very little about it. When we asked our survey respondents how much they thought they knew about this drug, more than 60 percent said they knew little to nothing about it. Another 28 percent said they had an average understanding of K2, while only 10 percent knew a great deal. Notably, only 1 percent considered themselves experts on synthetic cannabinoids.

K2 in the News

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Despite the terrifying 130-person New York overdose–news that reverberated around the world–and many other smaller news stories on the dangers of the drug, the overall US population remains in the dark about K2.

When we asked our survey respondents which region of the U.S. has the most K2 use, a majority pointed to the West, while 25 percent believed the Midwest had the highest usage.

Compare this with news headlines around the country and you’ll find that K2 is getting the most press in Southern states. These findings align with a recent report published by the Center for Disease Control stating there have been recent outbreaks in the Southern states of Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, and Texas.

Is K2 Really so Widespread?

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Despite the low number of survey respondents who admitted to K2 use, the drug has slowly been making its way deeper into the market since it’s introduction to the U.S. in 2008. In 2014, New Hampshire declared a state of emergency after a rash of overdoses. In 2016, Dallas reported a “sharp rise in 911 calls related to K2 use.” The CDC even reported a 330 percent increase in K2-related issues in the first four months of 2015.

According to our findings, 81 percent of survey takers said they hadn’t used the drug themselves, while 17 percent said they had. Frighteningly, 2 percent said they were unsure. Of those who confirmed using, 14 percent admitted to only using the drug once or twice.

When we asked about friends and family, usage figures shifted upward. Thirty-three percent said they knew someone who had used the drug. Twenty-one percent said they were unsure.

K2 Users: Who Are They?

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The CDC found that the majority of severe reactions to K2 happen to men between the ages of 13 and 18. When we asked survey respondents to report on their usage, a similar pattern emerged. Of the people surveyed, those that indicated they have used K2 were more likely to be male – with 21 percent of males reporting use, compared with 13 percent of women.

Further, of those who admitted to using the substance, 58 percent were aged 25 to 34, while 22 percent were 18 to 24, and the remaining 20 percent were aged 35 and above.

Consider the facts side-by-side and you’ll find a terrifying reality: While the vast majority of our survey respondents (89 percent) ranked their knowledge of synthetic marijuana as average or below average, still 19 percent of respondents have done the drug at least once.

The Side Effects of K2

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If you do try K2, how will it affect you? What are the side effects commonly associated with the drug? Rapid heart rate, vomiting, violent behavior, and suicidal thoughts are all side effects of the drug. Even worse, K2 use can potentially lead to death.

Again, the American public is frighteningly uninformed on the topic. When we asked our survey respondents to identify these common side effects, many knew that rapid heart rate and vomiting were likely dangers. However, only 40 percent suspected violent behavior, while 37 percent believed suicidal thoughts were a common side effect. It’s alarming that less that half of respondents were aware of these dangerous and potentially fatal side effects.

The Truth About Synthetic Cannabinoids

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Is K2 more dangerous than marijuana? How much more potent is it? And how long does it take to detox? When asked about safety, 65 percent knew that – while marijuana comes with its own set of dangers – it’s still less hazardous than K2, which has varying potencies.

Regarding potency, 47% were not exactly sure how much more potent K2 was, 30% knew it could be anywhere from two to 100 times more potent, and 5% believed that it was always 100 times more potent. The truth is that the variable potency is one of the most dangerous things about the drug. Depending on the chemicals and their combinations, K2 can be anywhere from twice as potent at THC to 100 times as potent–a fact that means accidental overdoses are easy to come by and hard to avoid.

As for detoxing, most survey respondents were unsure how long withdrawals lasted once someone quit K2. The reality is that symptoms often peak four to seven days after quitting, and most people are through their withdrawal symptoms in two to three weeks.

Finally, when asked how K2 is made, the majority of our survey takers understood that it’s made in a lab and is not a natural product. Despite all the misinformation out there, this is good news. Believing that K2 is a natural product or that someone can control their dosage only makes a dangerous drug seem more benign.

The Dangerous Reality

It may be marketed as “fake weed” or “synthetic marijuana,” but K2 is not natural or safe. It’s not even legal for consumption. It’s a chemical cocktail concocted in a lab with a widely variable potency. If you’re using K2, you’re not only putting unknown chemicals into your body, but you’re not going to be able to control the dose you’re getting. This is probably why hospitalizations are on the rise.

So what can be done to combat overdose, side effects, addiction, and other dangers? Americans can educate themselves about the realities of the drug. DrugAbuse.com offers educational materials, details about intervention programs, and a directory of treatment centers searchable by state. If you or a loved one needs to seek help for any substance, consider visiting our homepage or call 1-888-744-0069Who Answers?.

Sources:

https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/synthetic-cannabinoids

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/15/nyregion/k2-overdose-spike-in-new-york-at-least-130-cases-this-week-alone.html?_r=0

http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/15/health/synthetic-weed-k2-report/index.html?sr=twCNN071516synthetic-weed-k2-report0542PMStoryLink&linkId=26605056

http://www.necn.com/news/new-england/More-Than-40-Overdoses-in-NH-City-271286411.html

http://crimeblog.dallasnews.com/2016/01/police-paramedics-dealing-with-sharp-rise-in-911-calls-related-to-k2-use-in-downtown-dallas.html/

https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6422a5.htm

http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/15/health/synthetic-weed-k2-report/

https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/marijuana

//www.drugabuse.com/library/the-effects-of-spice-use/

http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/policy-dose/2015/08/05/synthetic-marijuana-is-much-worse-than-weed-and-its-a-public-health-threat

Methodology

We looked at headlines on GlobalIncidentMap.com that contained the keywords “synthetic marijuana,” “K2,” “Spice,” and “Cannabinoids.” Our survey was hosted by SurveyMonkey.com and distributed through Amazon Mechanical Turk for 2,000 responses in the U.S.

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