The effects of many drugs have been well documented individually; however, limited research has been done on polydrug abuse, a pattern of consuming multiple types of intoxicating substances. Often, people at raves or nightclubs will consume alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and illicit drugs in combination because it is part of the social experience. Other instances of polydrug abuse involve people combining specific drugs in order to enhance the high from one substance or temporarily alleviate some of the negative side effects. For example, many people who abuse cocaine also consume alcohol or benzodiazepines because the second drug’s depressant effects may, for a short time, keep the person calm while they experience euphoria from cocaine. Some people take benzodiazepines with opioid drugs to enhance the high from the narcotic.
A newer, dangerous combination of drugs that is not yet well researched is the combination of alcohol and synthetic marijuana, sometimes called Spice or K2. While the effects of alcohol by itself are documented, combining this intoxicating drink with new designer drugs is just beginning to be understood. Adolescents and young adults are abusing these substances together, leading to several overdoses.
Synthetic Marijuana Is Unpredictable
Organic marijuana is often abused for its tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a cannabinoid molecule that induces psychedelic euphoria. Since chemicals similar to THC can be manufactured in a laboratory setting, many clandestine labs have begun to create new, dangerous, yet still technically legal, versions of THC to sell in other countries, especially the United States.
Synthetic marijuana – called variously Spice, K2, liquid incense, and fake weed – is an artificial cannabinoid-based substance that may be sold as a clear liquid or sprayed onto dried plant matter so it looks like real, dried marijuana. Although the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has made some of these chemicals illegal under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the labs that produce these unregulated and untested intoxicants often skirt the law by slightly changing the molecular structure of the synthetic cannabinoid. They are sold in gas stations, head shops, and novelty stores, even to adolescents, because the chemical is technically legal to distribute. Fortunately, many states are passing laws to outlaw these substances in general; unfortunately, they are still easy to acquire and extremely dangerous.
Synthetic marijuana is more likely to lead to an overdose than organic marijuana. Since the clandestine labs that produce these chemicals do not test the drug for specific effects before selling them, the potential effects and side effects of Spice or fake weed are unknown. The cannabinoid molecule will bind to the brain’s cannabinoid receptors, which leads to some symptoms like those associated with organic marijuana, but their intensity and duration are unknown. Effects associated with some strains of Spice or K2 include:
- Elevated mood, either a relaxed or energetic euphoria
- Changes in one’s perception of time and space
- Delusions of grandeur or paranoia
- Disordered thinking
- Detachment from reality and the self
- Other psychotic symptoms
- Extreme anxiety
- Rapid heartbeat
- Nausea, vomiting, or stomach cramps
- Aggression toward oneself or others
- Suicidal ideation or attempts
People who took synthetic marijuana have been hospitalized due to psychosis, excessively high body temperature, severe accidents, and attempted suicide. Some individuals have died because of the severe, unpredictable side effects associated with these chemicals.
Risks of Alcohol Abuse
Unlike Spice, alcohol is one of the oldest intoxicating substances humans consume. Since recorded civilization over 5,000 years ago, people have made alcohol and excessively consumed the substance. In modern times, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that about 88,000 people in the United States die every year due to either acute or chronic complications involving alcohol.
Most people in the US will consume alcohol at some point. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) from 2016 found that more than 80 percent of people, ages 12 and older, in the US consumed alcohol at least once in their lives; close to 65 percent of that age group consumed alcohol in the year before the study; and almost 51 percent consumed alcohol in the month before the study. Most of those people will not struggle with problem drinking or excessive drinking, but the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that an estimated 16 million people across the country struggle with alcohol use disorder (AUD). Millions more binge drink or drink heavily, two forms of problem drinking that also lead to long-term health problems.
- Breath that smells like alcohol
- Enlarged pupils
- Stumbling due to loss of coordination
- Slurred speech
- Slow or shallow breathing
- Rapid heartbeat
- Nausea or vomiting
- Changes to eye movements
- Slow mental processing time
- Mood changes
- Blackouts or seizures (alcohol poisoning)
Alcohol’s effects are dose-dependent, as with most other drugs. Unlike synthetic marijuana, however, the potential effects that alcohol may have on the body are easy to understand for the most part, as standard drinks and the effects of certain levels of blood alcohol content (BAC) are well understood in the medical community.
Dangers of Combining Alcohol and Spice
While alcohol is dangerous and addictive, treating the effects of this substance are possible. Spice or K2, on the other hand, are new drugs; thus, they are harder to manage, and it is nearly impossible to dose these substances. The dangers of mixing alcohol with Spice are just beginning to be reported in hospital settings, as more people are treated for overdoses on this combination.
Treating an overdose caused by a combination of drugs is difficult. Because potent substances like alcohol and synthetic marijuana impact each other’s duration in the body, and how they are metabolized by the liver, managing the impact on the brain and body systems is more complex. With a new synthetic drug like K2 or Spice, emergency medical professionals may not know when specific symptoms will appear or how long they will last.
Alcohol combined with organic marijuana is one of the most common forms of polydrug abuse, so the mixture of THC and alcohol is thoroughly documented. A recent study found that the combination of THC, the main psychoactive substance in both organic cannabis and synthetic cannabinoids, is more potent in the body when alcohol is added. Since alcohol increases the potency of organic THC, it is likely that it does the same for Spice.
Mixing THC and alcohol increases the risk of serious side effects, too. The US Department of Transportation (DOT) found that, in a survey of 1,882 motor vehicle deaths, cannabis and alcohol separately increased a person’s risk of crashing; when combined, the risk of crashing went up considerably.
A case study published in 2014 found that synthetic marijuana led to toxic hepatitis, a form of serious liver damage. Symptoms associated with this form of liver damage included lethargy, fatigue, and sleepiness or somnolence; the individual was tested for other substances that may have harmed the liver, including alcohol, and was found to only have consumed synthetic cannabinoids. This case study, however, suggests that combining alcohol with Spice increases the risk of serious, acute damage to the liver. If these substances are abused together consistently for a long time, one may be at much greater risk for liver failure or chronic health problems associated with liver damage.
Help to End Polydrug Abuse
Abusing multiple drugs together is extremely dangerous. This practice can lead to addiction, and polydrug abuse increases the risk of overdose and death due to how drugs combine in the body.
Alcohol is one of the most widely abused intoxicating substances in the US, and it is often combined with other drugs to enhance their effects. Synthetic cannabinoids are unpredictable, and mixing them with alcohol can induce psychosis or lead to a serious accident. As a result, it is important to get help to safely detox from these drugs and then undergo therapy to overcome the underlying issues related to substance abuse.