Parents, tell your teens synthetic marijuana is no joke

We’ve done a lot of stories about K2, aka synthetic marijuana, and a rash of overdoses and death, especially among the homeless population in Austin.

That seems like something that happens to other people, not our teens, right?

Austin police seized 400 packets of the synthetic drug K2 last year. The drugs come in fun, colorful packets, but you don’t really know what’s in them. Philip Jankowski American-Statesman

John O’Neill knows that’s not true. He’s the clinical director and vice president of Phoenix House drug and alcohol addiction treatment centers, which has centers in Austin and Round Rock. Synthetic marijuana addiction in teens is second only to marijuana addiction.

Why is that? Synthetic marijuana is easier for teens to get than alcohol, opioids or other drugs, and it’s often cheaper than marijuana. It’s sold in smoke shops under crazy names like Tiger’s Breath, Yucatan Skunk, Joker, Black Mamba, Kronic.

“They market it as natural herbs, natural materials, like it’s not something bad for you,” O’Neill says. Yet kids don’t know what’s in it, and they don’t know how it might affect them. Every batch can be different.

“The argument that teenagers will make is ‘it’s not a big deal. I can get it in the store,’” O’Neill says. “It’s absolutely without a doubt destructive and harmful.”

John J. O Neill is the vice president and clinical director for Phoenix House drug and alcohol addiction centers.

And in teens, it’s even more harmful because their brains are not fully developed. That doesn’t happen to around age 25. What synthetic marijuana does do is alter the brain chemistry. Users can have psychotic issues, aggression and hallucinations.

Parents should look for these signs:

  • Withdrawing from family and friends.
  • Change in attitude more so than is developmentally normal.
  • Disconnection to usual interests.
  • Dropping out of activities.
  • Becoming more secretive.
  • Holding onto their backpack like it’s gold.
  • Withdrawing into their room.
  • Agitation.
  • Aggression.
  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns.
  • Euphoria.
  • Paranoia.
  • Excessive emotions.

“When parents are paying attention, they have an instinct that something is going on,” O’Neill says. “Paying attention can be difference between life and death.”

One thing to pay attention to is what are their friends doing and what are the drugs going around their school. If one of their friends gets caught with drugs, start asking questions. Don’t assume it was just what that friend or someone in their friend group was doing.

Austin Police Department officers and paramedics tend to a women who had collapsed in front of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless in April. Police say she lost consciousness most likely due to K2, the synthetic marijuana drug that has been negatively effecting Austin’s homeless population for the last two years. TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

“The most important thing any family can do is not hesitate in having conversations with teenagers about the substances and substance use,” O’Neill says. “Be open and honest and direct. It’s easy as a parent to hope and assume and have good thoughts that they are not messing with that. We have to assume that they all have access to those substances.”

What starts out as a way to have fun on a weekend then becomes something they need to escape whatever is going on in their lives that is difficult.

When O’Neill treats teens, he treats the whole family and whatever is beneath that need to escape. Sometimes there could be mental health issues as well. It might mean outpatient treatment or it could mean residential treatment for a time and then outpatient later, but all of it has a whole-family component.

“It’s easy to say, ‘That’s not my problem. That’s your problem.’ It’s everyone’s problem,”he says. He likens addiction to the tiger in the room. It’s not only the person closest to the tiger that could be hurt by the tiger. “We’ve got to figure out how to manage it or it’s going to eat us all.”


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