Synthetic marijuana, also known as K2 or Spice, is reportedly behind dozens of users turning “zombie-like” in Brooklyn last summer. 

In July, 33 people collapsed on a Brooklyn sidewalk within an 11-hour period, according to a recent CNN article. At the time, no one could explain the underlying cause, but a newly released study by the New England Journal of Medicine pointed at synthetic cannabinoids found in recovered packages of AK-47 24 Karat Gold. Sold over the counter as a natural substance, faux pot can be 85 times more potent than actual marijuana.

Spice is a mixture of herbs, spices or shredded plant material that has been sprayed with various chemicals similar to THC, but all of which are synthetic concoctions created in labs and with constantly changing recipes that keep it from being regulated by the FDA. It’s packed in small foil pouches and given names like Cowboy Kush, Scooby Snax, and Bliss, and is commonly sold in convenience stores and head shops for anywhere from $10 to $50.

Those who witnessed the Brooklyn incident described the victims as “zombielike” – but not in the ‘couch lock’ way that most associate with those using real marijuana. Instead, the patients reportedly had “blank stares”, were severely lethargic, had breathing difficulty and nearly half needed medical attention, according to the Journal report.

The head of the study, Roy Gerona, an assistant professor in the clinical toxicology and environmental biomonitoring laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, found that the packages the victims had used contained a synthetic cannabinoid known as AMB-FUBINACA, an analogue of AB-FUBINACA, which was developed as a potential pain medication in 2009.

This is important because, in 2014, the United States had designated AB-FUBINACA a Schedule I controlled substance, which means it ‘has a high potential for abuse and the potential to create severe psychological and/or physical dependence.’ Genoa found that some of the victims in the Brooklyn case exhibited movements that were slow and mechanical, with “intermittent periods of ‘zombielike’ groaning.”

These side effects are a result of the synthetic cannabinoids: a forensic and analytical chemist at West Virginia University, Suzanne Bell, has also been looking at their byproducts and “trying to understand these unusual effects. These are not what you see with marijuana, so something else is going on.”

“It is much more difficult to make the cannabinoids than methamphetamine and similar drugs like that,” Bell explained to CNN. “The skill level is much higher. You have to be a skilled organic chemist to pull it off.”

Specialized apparatus, like that found in a pharmaceutical synthesis lab, would be needed, making the labs that create synthetic cannabinoids “… fairly sophisticated operations,” she further stated.

To underline how different this ‘fake pot’ is from the real thing, here’s a list of the side effects found as a result of using synthetic cannabinoids, as published in the New England Journal of Medicine paper:

“In the past 8 years, synthetic cannabinoids have been associated with serious adverse effects. The undesirable effects most commonly reported by users include drowsiness, lightheadedness, and fast or irregular heartbeat. More severe clinical features, including psychosis, delirium, cardiotoxicity, seizures, acute kidney injury, hyperthermia, and death.”

In Sonoma County, eating all-natural and organic is almost de rigueur; it appears it would be the best way to keep marijuana, as well. With a steady record of zero overdoses, it’s a good idea to keep it real.