Confronting Drug Abuse

March 28th, 2013

Synthetic Marijuana

Sixteen-year-old Emily Bauer was on a breathing tube, lying in a hospital bed in Texas on the afternoon of December 16. All medications and nourishment had been stopped, with only morphine flowing into her body. Days earlier, doctors performed emergency surgery and drilled a hole in Emily’s skull, inserting a tube to relieve mounting pressure. Her family waited by her bed, expecting her to die. Instead, the next day, she was still alive. That morning, Emily’s mother said to her, “I love you.” Amazingly, Emily was able to whisper back, “I love you too.”

The family said that the reason Emily landed in the hospital was drug abuse, but not from any of the “usual” or “normal” drugs associated with overdosing, such as heroin or cocaine. Instead, what almost took Emily’s life was a form of synthetic marijuana packaged as “potpourri,” a substance that she and her friends had bought legally at a local gas station.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy reports that the use of synthetic marijuana is “alarmingly high.” According to 2011 data, more than one in nine high school seniors—11.4 percent—had taken this drug in the past year, making it the second most commonly used illicit drug. Additionally, illicit drug use in the United States is growing. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported last December that “in 2011, an estimated 22.5 million Americans aged 12 or older—or 8.7 percent of the population—had used an illicit drug or abused a psychotherapeutic medication (such as a pain reliever, stimulant, or tranquilizer) in the past month. This is up from 8.3 percent in 2002.” The most commonly used illicit drug is marijuana.

Better known by street names such as K2 or Spice, synthetic marijuana creates a “high” like smoking real marijuana, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Emily’s stepfather, Tommy Bryant, was reported in the press as saying, “Had I thought that there was any chance that she could have been hurt by this stuff, I would have been a lot more vigilant. I had no idea it was so bad.”

Synthetic marijuana is “a mixture of herbs or other plant materials that have been sprayed with artificial chemicals that are supposed to mimic the effects of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana,” the Partnership at explains. However, because the drug is synthetic, the effects on the body can be quite different than regular marijuana. The effects of the drug are quite fast and can last for up to eight hours. No one knows the long-term effects of using the drug. “The paranoia that is associated with K2/Spice is closer to the psychological reaction to PCP or angel dust than to the paranoia associated with marijuana.” Barbara Carreno, spokeswoman for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, said that synthetic marijuana is so dangerous because “it can be 100 times more potent than marijuana.” reports that synthetic marijuana was linked to 11,406 emergency department visits in 2010, and that children ages 12 to 17 were the most likely to be brought in. The first state laws banning these kinds of drugs were adopted that same year; and today, at least 41 states and Puerto rico have laws on the books banning them. In 2012, President Obama signed legislation that banned five of the most common substances used to make synthetic marijuana and bath salts.

One commonly reported side effect of smoking synthetic marijuana is extreme, migraine-like headaches. In fact, this was the first symptom Emily Bauer reported. Her family believes this was around the time she started smoking the drug, about two weeks before she was admitted to the hospital.

Bath Salts

According to the Partnership at, bath salts are sold under a wide variety of street names. Some examples are Bliss, Blue Silk, Cloud Nine, Drone, Ivory Wave, Lunar Wave, Ocean Burst, and Stardust. Bath salts are ingested by sniffing or snorting, while synthetic marijuana is usually smoked. People who use bath salts often experience short-term paranoia, including suicidal thoughts, violent behavior, confusion, and hallucinations. The effects, which take only minutes to achieve, can last for up to six hours.

So, what are bath salts? They are not the kind of salts one would place in a tub of hot water prior to taking a bath. They look similar, hence the name. According to an online guide for parents published by the Partnership at, bath salts are “a man-made, chemical (as opposed to organic) stimulant drug. . . . Amphetamines, or speed, are an example of stimulant drugs.”

The technical term for bath salts is “substituted cathinone,” which has a stimulant effect on the user and can be very dangerous. Substituted cathinones, according to the guide, are “synthetic, concentrated versions of the stimulant chemical in Khat [a plant cultivated and used in the Middle East and East Africa].” The chemicals most commonly found in bath salts are Methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), mephedrone, and methylone.


Perhaps much better known than K2 or bath salts, crystal meth is a powerful drug wreaking havoc across the globe. Several big-name celebrities have fallen victim to the drug, raising its awareness but hardly diminishing its appeal. Black Eyed Peas’ lead singer, Fergie, was once hooked on meth; Redmond O’Neal, son of Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal, was jailed for use; and Full House actress Jodie Sweetin wrote in 2009 how she once attended a premier “high as a kite” on crystal meth.

First invented in Japan in 1919, methamphetamine is “an addictive stimulant that strongly activates certain systems in the brain,” according to the Partnership at During World War II, meth was given to allied bomber pilots to keep them awake on long flights. However, usage of the drug was stopped because soldiers became irritable and aggressive. Meth was once used to treat heroin addiction in the 1960’s, but by 1970 it had become a controlled substance in the United States. In 1996, Congress passed a measure that also regulated the ingredients used to make meth, such as pseudoephedrine, hydrochloric gas, and iodine.

Right after a person smokes or injects the drug, meth creates an intense sensation, or “rush,” that lasts only a few minutes but, according to users, is “extremely pleasurable.” After the initial rush, users frequently become agitated and sometimes violent. Other immediate side effects include sleeplessness, a decrease in appetite, anxiety, and convulsions. The person could also suffer a heart attack.

“Crystal meth is one of the most addictive substances on the planet,” said Pax Prentiss, the founder and director of Passages Malibu, a drug and alcohol treatment center. “It also does the most harm.” He should know: Prentiss once encountered a long-time addict who had done the drug so much, he had lost his nose. Dr. Eric Braverman, an addiction specialist and author, notes that crystal meth “blows out” the brain’s ability to make dopamine, which can—and does—lead to brain damage. Users often develop a tolerance for the drug in short order, needing ever-larger doses to achieve the same rush. Addicts have reportedly gone without sleep, food, or other necessities of life to get high.

What We Can Do

In addition to the real cost in terms of human lives damaged or destroyed, the usage of illicit drugs in the United States impacts our economy. According to the Partnership at, drug abuse in the United States costs employers $276 billion per year. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that “three-quarters of people with a drug or alcohol problem are employed.” What can we do in light of such statistics?

Churches can offer programs to educate people in their communities. They can cooperate with local programs to advocate for change. They can also offer space for recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

What can parents do to avoid situations like Emily Bauer’s? The Partnership at states that communication is the crucial first step. “Clearly communicate the risks of alcohol and drug use,” the guide says. “Let your children know you disapprove” of their use. Monitoring who your children “hang out” with is also important, as well as knowing where your children are at all times. Spotting drug and alcohol use can be a challenge, but it is important for parents to know the signs, such as declining grades at school; abrupt changes in friends, groups, or behavior; changes in sleeping habits; less openness and honesty with family members; and/or a sudden onset of severe headaches. When you do spot a problem, the guide says that focusing is crucial. “Don’t panic, but act right away. Start talking” with your children. “Take action and learn more.”

News reports indicate that Emily Bauer has suffered brain damage and is paralyzed. She is also unable to see. In late January, Emily ate her first solid food since the incident, something the family takes as a sign of hope. Emily’s stepfather, Tommy, says he wouldn’t wish this nightmare on any parent. He and his family have started a nonprofit organization called Synthetic Awareness for Emily, which has a goal of educating families, teachers, and doctors about the dangers and warning signs of synthetic marijuana use. “We want to let other parents know about this so they don’t have to go [through] what we’ve been going through.”

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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