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Devastating Impacts Of Synthetic Marijuana Take Hold In Wisconsin

Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth
U.S. Air Force
An Airman passes a spice display in a local smoke shop prior to a ban on the substance by the Drug Enforcement Agency.

There are dozens of names for the substances known as synthetic marijuana/cannabinoids, like K2, Spice, or simply, Fake Weed. But in actuality, these drugs bear little resemblance to the marijuana most are familiar with and their impact can be devastating.

"Smoking K2 can lead to unpredictable and severe, or even life-threatening, effects," says Tiffinie Cobb, the substance abuse and injury prevention manager with the Milwaukee Health Department. 

Credit Joy Powers
An ad warning about K2, a synthetic marijuana.

Cobb continues, "[Smoking synthetic marijuana can cause] nausea, vomiting, violent behavior, suicidal thoughts ... You can even experience hallucinations, hypertension, seizures, and other cognitive defects." 

She says there has been at least one death in Wisconsin caused by K2. It is difficult to know exactly how much synthetic marijuana has contributed to health problems in its users, in part because the formulas used to create these products constantly change in response to federal bans on specific chemicals. As the formula for products like Spice and K2 changes, their impact on users changes as well.

The city of Milwaukee's on-going information campaign about synthetic marijuana addresses some of the many misconceptions about this class of drugs.

"A lot of people think it’s an alternative [to marijuana], and think it’s something that’s better than smoking marijuana or doing other drugs because it’s legal and they can buy it in a store, but it’s not at all," she explains.

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Joy Powers joined WUWM January 2016 as producer for Lake Effect. Most recently, she was a director and producer for The Afternoon Shift, on WBEZ-fm, Chicago Public Radio.