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Scary Truth About Synthetic Drugs

Before I started working at The Kim Foundation, I understood very little about the relationship between drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness. Of course not all drug users are mentally ill, as not all individuals with a mental illness abuse drugs and alcohol. However, it’s estimated that nearly 50% of people with an addictive disorder will have a psychiatric disorder, and roughly 20% of those with a psychiatric disorder will develop an addiction problem ( A co-occurring disorder is defined as the presence of two or more disorders at the same time, such as a person with bipolar disorder who also suffers from substance abuse (

There are a handful of factors that could help explain the frequent occurrence of mental illness and addiction including genetics, chemical deficiency, and shared environment. Often time’s people try to use drugs or alcohol in hopes that they will be able to control the symptoms of their mental illness. Depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia are most commonly associated with drug and alcohol dependency ( Because alcohol and drug use can cause significant anxiety and depression, addiction disorders can often be indistinguishable from a mental illness.

During my research on the relationship between drug and alcohol dependency and mental illness, I came across an article about synthetic drugs. These drugs have been causing people to suffer a list of side-effects including agitation, paranoia, hallucinations, chest pain, increased pulse, vomiting, confusion, high blood pressure, stroke, homicidal tendencies, long-term psychological damage, and suicidal behavior. Even smoking natural organic marijuana can have adverse effects on someone with a mental illness such as worsened depression, increased anxiety, and higher risk for psychosis. But these new “designer drugs” are highly addictive, legal, and are being marketed to youth 12-17 years old.

Synthetic drugs or synthetic cannabinoids, are referred to by a variety of names such as K2, Spice, and Bath Salts. I met with Christine Gabig of the Douglas County Forensic Office to learn more about these dangerous new drugs.

“Synthetic cannabinoids are man-made chemicals that are applied to plant material and marketed as a “legal” high,” said Gabig.
“These chemicals are called synthetic cannabinoids because they work with the same receptors in the brain as the active ingredient in marijuana. However, they are not actually chemically related to marijuana at all,” she explained.

You may remember an incident in January 2011, where a Millard South High school student shot his principal and assistant principal before turning the gun on himself. Investigators found evidence of use of K2 prior to the shootings. People who knew the young man described him as “popular” and “well liked.” They never imagined he would be capable of something like this.
“These chemicals have not been studied as to their effects on the brain and body if ingested,” said Gabig. “But in the past few years, have shown the community that they have some very dangerous side effects.”

Synthetic marijuana is usually packaged in brightly colored pouches marked with catchy names, like “Crazy Clown”, “The Walking Dead” and “Twilite”. Inside is merely dried vegetation sprayed with acetone (the same chemical that removes nail polish) and other man-made chemicals. It’s made up entirely of legal, but deadly chemical compounds and some include household chemicals such as rat poison and drain cleaner. There are no guidelines or regulation on how much chemical mix a drug maker can spray on to the dried weeds, so the level of the high and the side-effects that each pouch creates are unpredictable. Purchased at gas stations, head shops, and online, the ingredients are never listed on the package. The package will include the phrases, “Not for human consumption,” or “Herbal Incense.”

Designer drugs first started to appear in the United States in 2009, and in only five years there have been hundreds of new synthetic substances on the market. Synthetic marijuana has become the most common among teens and has already sent thousands of American teens to the hospital, as well as taken countless young lives. The problem with this kind of drug is that once a chemical compound is outlawed, drug makers simply tweak their recipe, remove the illegal substance, change the marketing and just like that… their drug is legal again. It can take months for chemicals to become outlawed, and only a few hours for a recipe to be adjusted to meet the new legal guidelines.

This is not only a problem in our country, but worldwide. In October 2014, Viktor Ivanov, the Director of Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service, said Spice mixtures had poisoned a total of 700 and killed at least two dozen individuals since mid-September. Russian media have reported on the enormous amounts of suicides and homicides committed by people ingesting the drug.
“People don’t know what they’re smoking and for that reason the results are so bad,” Yevgeny Roizman, the mayor of Yetakerinburg, Russia said. “They bring them into psych wards and they don’t know what to do with them. The most common effect is that people go crazy. There are very serious psychological consequences.” (

Kali Smith of Bellevue knows all too well of the seriousness of smoking synthetic marijuana. Kali’s 18-year-old son Tyler, paid the ultimate price last year after smoking what a classmate told him was cherry flavored tobacco; a product that was bought at the corner gas station. Tyler came home early from school violently ill. Concerned, Kali took her son to the doctor to run tests, but they found nothing wrong with him. Tyler’s normally happy disposition had changed drastically. He became withdrawn, depressed, and uncommunicative.

“He didn’t have an interest all of a sudden in anything,” Kali said. “Even his posture became different, hunched over.”
She suspected that he may have been using drugs, so she ordered a full drug test, and consulted with mental health professionals. All the tests came back negative, even for K2, the same drug he had smoked. Four short days later, Tyler killed himself. An autopsy later uncovered six large cysts in his brain that doctors believe were a direct result of the drug.

Kali established an organization in honor of her son called The Tyler J. Smith Purple Project. The Purple Project is dedicated to bringing awareness and support to the community and people of all ages about the dangers of synthetic drugs and teen suicide. They also worked closely with the state legislature to establish LB811, also known as “Tyler’s Law.” This 48-page document contains lists of chemical compounds that are now declared illegal and serves as a mandate against all those selling synthetic drugs of any kind in Nebraska (

The battle against synthetic drugs and suicide is an ongoing one. With organizations like The Purple Project, our youth have the opportunity to learn about the risks of synthetic drug use and gain the knowledge to make healthier life choices.

If you have a school or group that you feel would benefit from a guest speaker about synthetic drug use or suicide prevention, please contact Jill at The Kim Foundation at to schedule a presentation today.

After all, education is often the first step to prevention.
About Jill Sauser, The Kim Foundation Project Coordinator

Jill graduated with a degree in Journalism and a minor in Speech Communication from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2009. During her time at UNO, she completed a two year PR practicum program where she worked with numerous nonprofit clients including the MS Society, The Archdiocese of Omaha, The Omaha Food Bank and YWCA. Jill joined The Kim Foundation as Project Coordinator in April 2014.