Senior College Football Columnist

Where there's smoke, there's fire when it comes to synthetic marijuana


A one-ounce pouch of K2 contains a potpourri of dried herbs treated with a THC-like chemical. (Getty Images)  
A one-ounce pouch of K2 contains a potpourri of dried herbs treated with a THC-like chemical. (Getty Images)  

In an eastern Kansas crime lab, Jeremy Morris gets a daily lesson in evolution. The senior forensic scientist for the Johnson County Sheriff's Office is troubled by the high, the damage and the new of synthetic marijuana.

Problem is, the stuff seems to get newer each day.

"The drug testing has not caught up," Morris. "We're just now figuring out how to test for some of the original compounds. If you're a college student and you really like to do drugs and you don't want to get caught, go ahead and use these. They're not going to catch you."

And maybe not for a while. Synthetic marijuana -- with street names like K2 and Spice -- is a designer drug with a high "100 times" as potent as regular marijuana, according to one trainer from a BCS school. And more destructive. One college player has already died from it. Recently disgraced LSU defender Tyrann Mathieu has been linked to the substance. Former Auburn tailback Michael Dyer said in court he smoked it the night of an attempted robbery attempt.

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There has been anecdotal evidence of heart attacks, psychosis, schizophrenia, paranoia and users with resting heart rates of 190. Synthetic marijuana is described as a mixture of herbs, spices or shredded plants that are sprayed with a synthetic compound chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive found in marijuana.

"The way I put it is, you can smoke as much marijuana as you want but you're only going to get so high," Arizona head trainer Randy Cohen said. "It's like driving a motor with a governor on it. These new compounds have no governor on them at all."

It's dangerous and it's at our front door impacting lives, families and perhaps the national championship race. The NCAA has the substance on its banned list but doesn't test for it yet. The association is still collecting information and could be testing by next year. The NCAA currently tests for street drugs only in its championships. That leaves it up to a conference or an independent third-party contractor to test for the substance.

Synthetic marijuana is so new, it's doubtful that specific drug-sniffing dogs have been trained. The substance is a moving target for both authorities and testers. As soon as one class of ingredients -- cannabinoids -- are banned, "the folks that are manufacturing the product just tweak," said Andrea Wickerham, vice president of the National Center for Drug-Free Sport in Kansas City, Mo.

"You are somewhat chasing your tail."

Spice and K2 got on the National Center's radar about two years ago. Aegis, a nationally known lab in Nashville, Tenn., began testing for synthetic marijuana for its clients last year. The initial positive rate among college athletes was six percent. As substances were banned by states and the federal government, the positives have dropped.

"Kids started to find out, 'Hey they're testing for these,' " said Melinda Shelby, a senior scientist for sports testing services at Aegis.

But there is another more sinister reason that reflects Morris' concerns. The manufacturers have synthesized newer substances that don't show up on a drug screen.

"We are definitely always in a catch-up mode," Shelby said.

The science always seems to be ahead of the testers. (With rare exceptions, see Major League Baseball and the Tour de France.) If Mathieu and two other teammates did test positive as reported last year, they would have been subject to testing from three different sources -- the NCAA, the SEC and an outside contractor such as Aegis or the National Center.

The Birmingham News reported the SEC has begun testing for synthetic marijuana.

Aegis tests for the substance and has approximately 100 such college clients according to Shelby. The National Center contracts with the NCAA to do its nationwide testing. The company also has approximately 300 institutional clients, and the majority of those schools test for synthetic marijuana Wickerham said.

"This is the unknown and new," she added. "The horrible side effects are clearly out there."

An Anderson (S.C.) University player died last year of acute drug toxicity. Authorities said his death was caused by one of the chemical components of synthetic marijuana -- JWH-108.

ESPN reported last year Mathieu was suspended for a game for testing positive for the substance. Mathieu was kicked off the team last week for what was reported to be another failed drug test.

Dyer testified in April that he smoked Spice the night of a failed robbery attempt with three teammates in September 2011. Dyer has subsequently has been dismissed from both Auburn and Arkansas State. Spice and K2 were legal in Alabama until last year.

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher recently called the use of marijuana on campuses an "epidemic." Fisher dismissed star Greg Reid three weeks after he was charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession.

But if simple marijuana is an epidemic, K2 and Spice are a still-developing threat. Because of its newness, long-term effects aren't known. Its addictive qualities are still being explored.

"This is actually scarier than other drugs we see," said Stephen Howe, Johnson County District Attorney. "They keep tweaking it to get ahead of the law."

Morris and Howe have become reluctant experts on the subject. Kansas was the first state to ban synthetic marijuana in 2010. Approximately 30 other states have followed. The DEA banned five specific substances found in synthetic marijuana in 2011. Last month, President Obama signed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act. Just three weeks ago federal agents conducted a first-ever nationwide raid targeting synthetic drugs. Agents conducted raids in approximately 100 cities.

These days, a quarter of the substances that show up in Morris' lab are similar designer drugs. He estimates that law enforcement as a whole is at least six months behind the manufacturers who are changing their formulas to stay legal -- and stay in business.

"Six months behind?" Shelby said when she heard the estimate. "I would say it would be more than that."

Morris calls the scourge a "perfect storm" of modern technology. The Internet, overnight shipping as well as aggressive manufacturing and distribution. A large portion of the substance comes from China.

"The Internet has really been a game changer," Morris said. "It used to be if you wanted to get a drug you kind of had to know a dealer. You don't have to do that now. All you have to have is an Internet connection and credit card."

"China has stepped up and they're making quantities, metric tons of it. In the 1840s, China fought the opium wars. Now they've turned the tables. They're selling their drugs to us."

College athletes are students too, students who tend to be reckless at a young age. Twice in the last year and a half football players at Oklahoma and Alabama have died after mixing alcohol with prescription drugs. That lesson should be easily understandable. Drugs and alcohol don't mix.

It's not that easy with Spice, which seems to change composition by the day.

"You don't die of a heart attack smoking marijuana," Morris said. "Kids are dying from smoking synthetic marijuana."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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