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What is synthetic marijuana, and why is it more dangerous?

There have been dozens of K2 overdoses in the Twin Cities recently.

The overdose patients have been admitted to the hospital in a constant drip over the past two weeks. Some are in a severe agitated state, hallucinating or showing signs of paranoia and anxiety.

There have been at least 50 of these overdoses in Hennepin County in the past two weeks, the sheriff's office says. But a Hennepin County Medical Center official told MPR they've seen more than 90 recently.

The cause, according to authorities, is K2 (aka "spice") – a man-made drug that's often referred to as synthetic marijuana.

Nobody has died as a result of these recent overdoses, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said, giving credit to the work of first responders and medical professionals.

The sudden surge highlights the increased risk of using synthetic such as K2.

What makes it more dangerous

Regular weed is a plant. It's grown in the wild and doesn't need anything added to have an effect – the THC just does its thing. It's all natural, essentially.

K2 (and other synthetics) are not.

These types of drugs usually contain some kind of dried, shredded plant material – but then it gets sprayed or soaked with chemicals that have been made in a lab to induce some type of high, the National Institute on Drug Abuse says.

These chemicals are related to the natural substances found in marijuana, but they're not actually in a marijuana plant, explains DrugPolicy.org.

Because of that, anyone who uses a synthetic such as K2 has no idea what's in there. The chemicals included are completely up to whoever made that batch, DrugPolicy.org says. There's no guarantee one pack will contain the same chemicals as another, or that the levels in each will be about the same.

Synthetics can also be significantly more potent than the THC you'd find in regular marijuana, and can damage your body, NBC News says, including destroying kidneys, and causing heart attacks or strokes. It can also kill people. This is something the federal government stresses.

“[Some synthetics] could be 1-to-800 times more powerful, some are 25 times more powerful, some are 5 times,” DEA agent Barbra Roach told Huffington Post. “Because it’s lab-created, [the drug’s makers] are constantly trying to change the analogs in it and the compounds so it’s like an unknown and then it’s not technically illegal, at least under federal law.” 

Compare that to natural marijuana, a drug that can lead to anxiety or panic attacks, side effects "which though worrisome, are not lethal," DrugPolicy.org says. In fact, weed has never been the sole cause of a fatal overdose.

Having or selling synthetics is illegal in Minnesota, though only as of 2011.

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