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By Willoughby Mariano April 9, 2012

Deal: Fake marijuana use rising, connected to death, violence and "bodily harm"

Phony marijuana targeted by recent state legislation sounds worse than the real thing, if you believe Georgia’s governor.

Chase’s Law strengthens a ban on "synthetic marijuana," ground-up plant material laced with chemicals that mimic marijuana. Chase Burnett, the bill’s namesake, was found dead in March in a hot tub at his Fayette County home, a packet of the drugs nearby. He was 16.  

The bill passed with overwhelming support. On March 27, Gov. Nathan Deal signed it into law.

A press release warned of synthetic marijuana’s dangers:

"As the usage has dramatically increased, instances of violence, bodily harm and even death have risen with it," it said.

We’ve heard that the drug is nasty stuff. But what’s this about violence, bodily harm and death?

A Deal spokeswoman sent PolitiFact Georgia news stories and poison control data to prove the governor’s point. We also talked to researchers and law enforcement officials and reviewed news stories and scientific studies.

The form of synthetic marijuana that’s sparking so much concern is sold at head shops and gas stations under brand names such as "Spice" and "K2."  

Georgia made it a felony to manufacture and sell it in 2010. Chase’s Law tries to keep underground chemists from tweaking their recipes to get around state restrictions.  

There’s little scholarly research on the drug, which appears to be new to the U.S.

Federal labs first detected these drugs in November 2008, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The earliest U.S. news story we found about its rising popularity appeared in a Hutchinson  Kan., newspaper in November 2009.

All signs suggest that synthetic marijuana use is increasing dramatically, but data is in short supply.

Workers at the American Association of Poison Control Centers began tracking synthetic marijuana calls in 2010 after they noticed more inquiries, a spokeswoman told PolitiFact Georgia.

In 2010, they received 2,906  calls; in 2011, there were 6,959.

About 11 percent of high school seniors reported using synthetic marijuana in the past year, according to 2011 results of an annual survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It was the first time researchers asked about the drug.

Existing data support Deal’s claim that reports of bodily harm have climbed. Georgia Poison Center call data show 10 users were admitted to a hospital’s critical care unit in 2010 after using the drug. Forty-five were admitted in 2011.

Rapid heartbeat, agitation, drowsiness, vomiting, hallucinations and nausea were among the drug’s most common effects, researchers have found.  

Media accounts report drug users injured in car crashes, falls and other accidents -- some fatal.

Whether synthetic marijuana is directly responsible for deaths -- and whether they’re increasing -- is a more complicated issue. We found no published studies on the drug’s lethality, but there have been "scattered reports of deaths," said Lloyd Johnston, a University of Michigan professor who conducted the National Institute on Drug Abuse survey.

A count of news stories suggests there are more deadly cases. But whether the drug is a direct cause or contributing factor is not clear in some instances.

Consider Burnett’s death. Toxicology tests are still in the works. Whether the official cause of death was drowning, the drug or something else is unsettled.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead told PolitiFact Georgia of two other recent deaths: 

  • Two chemicals used in synthetic marijuana were found in the system of a man, 43, who died Sept. 8 in Cherokee County. The official cause of death was chronic high blood pressure.
  • Toxicology results are pending in the Feb. 20 death of a 26-year-old Clarke County man. Police found two packages of synthetic marijuana on his bathroom sink, one partially used.  

We found other accounts of synthetic marijuana-related deaths. For example, a South Carolina coroner ruled that it was directly responsible for the October death of a college basketball player who collapsed during warm-up, according to multiple news accounts.

PolitiFact Georgia found less support for Deal’s claim about violence. We found no published studies on the subject. News stories, however, suggest there’s cause for concern.

For instance:

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  • In September, a Bulloch County man told emergency dispatchers he and his girlfriend smoked Spice and it made him act "crazy," a sheriff’s report said. When deputies arrived, they found him holding his girlfriend, who was bloody and beaten. He said he attacked her.
  • In 2010, an 18-year-old Iowa man fatally shot himself after smoking the drug.

To sum up:

Evidence supports Deal’s claim that use of the drug has "dramatically increased," as has synthetic marijuana-related "bodily harm." Some evidence suggests that deaths have risen, too.

The link between the drug and violence is less clear. News accounts suggest there is an increase in both, but we found so few cases it’s hard to tell.

Deal’s statement could use clarification. Still, it earns a Mostly True.

Our Sources

Office of Gov. Nathan Deal, press release, "Deal signs bill to outlaw synthetic marijuana," March 27, 2012

Email interviews, Stephanie Mayfield, spokeswoman, Gov. Nathan Deal, April 2 and 3, 2012

Georgia SB 370 2012, accessed April 4, 2012

Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Georgia Information Sharing and Analysis Center, fact sheet, synthetic marijuana, sent April 2, 2012

Georgia Poison Center, synthetic marijuana data, 2010 and 2011

American Association of Poison Control Centers, Synthetic Marijuana Data, updated March 15, 2012

National Institute on Drug Abuse, Monitoring the Future survey, 2011

USA Today, "Survey: More teens using synthetic drugs," Nov. 24, 2011

U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, Office of Diversion Control, Rules, 2010

The Hutchinson News, "New drug has area officials on lookout," Nov. 16, 2009

Journal of Addictive Diseases, "Synthetic Cannabinoid Exposures Reported to Texas Poison Centers," October 2011

CBS Chicago, "2 Investigators: Synthetic Marijuana Product Blamed In Teen’s Deadly Crash," July 7, 2011

The State, "Police charge Lexington man in fatal wreck after discovering synthetic marijuana in his system," Oct. 31, 2012

The Seattle Times, "Police say driver smoked synthetic marijuana before Pike Place crash," Dec. 17, 2010

Fox 5 Atlanta, "Family Says Teen Dies After Taking Synthetic Marijuana," March 7, 2012,

The Times, "Fake pot, real risks: Daughter blames synthetic drugs for mother's death," March 16, 2012

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Cops: Boy, 16, drowns in hot tub at home," March 5, 2012, "AP IMPACT: Synthetic drugs send thousands to ER," April 6, 2011

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "Artificial marijuana causes death of Westmoreland boy,"  Oct. 27, 2011

Statute 16-13-30, Official Code of Georgia Annotated, 2011

Independent Mail, "Coroner: Lamar Jack ingested chemical found in fake marijuana before he died," Oct. 15, 2011, "Coroner: Synthetic Pot Killed College Athlete," Oct. 17, 2011

The Seattle Times, "Teenager charged in adult court with murdering 17-year-old girl," March 21, 2012

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Synthetic marijuana could be outlawed under bill," March 9, 2010

Incident report, Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office, Sept. 11, 2011

Telephone and email interview, John Bankhead, spokesman, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, April 3, 2012

Telephone and email interview, Loreeta Canton, spokeswoman, American Association of Poison Control Centers, April 3, 2012

Email interview, Joanna Cohen, assistant professor, Pediatrics & Emergency Medicine, George Washington University School of Medicine, Children's National Medical Center, April 3, 2012

Telephone interview, Jared Akins, investigator, Bulloch County Sheriff's Office, April 3, 2012

Email interview, Lloyd Johnston, University Distinguished Research Scientist, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, April 3, 2012

Email interview, Anthony J. Scalzo, professor and director, Division of Toxicology, Saint Louis University School of Medicine, April 3, 2012

Telephone interview, Gaylord Lopez, director, Georgia Poison Center, April 3, 2012

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Deal: Fake marijuana use rising, connected to death, violence and "bodily harm"

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