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iAroma synthetic marijuana and the loss of Max Dobner

Max Dobner. Credit: To The Maximus! Foundation

If you have not heard about the risks of marginally-legal, synthetic marijuana products, a NBC Today Show piece this week certainly raised national awareness of these products sold online, in convenience stores, and smoke shops. (Note: the video autoplays after clicking the hyperlink.)

On June 14 a 19-year-old northern Illinois man named Max Dobner crashed into a two-story home at a high rate of speed. The family living there was out but a baby had been napping an hour earlier in the room where the car entered.

According to Paul Biasco at the Daily Herald:

Police said Dobner was speeding in a 1999 Chrysler Cirrus east on Mooseheart Road, blew through a stop sign at the T-intersection at Route 31 and was sent airborne when the four-door struck a retaining wall. The vehicle flew about 15 feet in the air over an 80-foot stretch before hitting a tree and then the home, Zies said.

“The car hit with such force the motor came dislodged from the vehicle and went in through two more rooms and ended up in a bedroom in the back of the house,” [North Aurora Fire District Capt. Todd] Zies said. “It wiped out four rooms: a living room, bedroom, bathroom and another bedroom on the other side.”

This photo gallery at the Daily Herald shows the scene of the accident.

Charles Menchaca of the Batavia Patch reported this week that in the intervening month since the accident, a potential reason for this inexplicable single-car accident has emerged: Max’s brother reported speaking to him about having smoked a legal “potpourri” product called iAroma about an hour-and-a-half prior to the accident.

Search engine hits to one of our introductory posts here and to those of our neuroscience colleague DrugMonkey let us know that many of you are looking for information about these products. Therefore, I thought I’d put together an “explainer” for anyone interested in this topic regardless of whether they have a scientific background. Please let me know if this helps you understand – if anything is unclear, please leave a message in the comments below and I’ll follow-up.

For more technical information written by us and several of our neuropharmacology research colleagues, scroll to the bottom of this post.

Synthetic marijuana: where did it come from?

From legalenjoy.com before they stopped selling the product this week.

Before I suggest background reading, let’s just chat about the basics behind these so-called potpourri or incense products, also known as “legal highs.”

Many mind-altering substances come from my specialized branch of the study of drug action: natural products pharmacology and pharmacognosy. Natural “products” doesn’t refer to retail products but rather chemicals made by plants, mushrooms, microorganisms, and other creatures of land and sea. I study this field because several anticancer drugs have come from nature. However, natural products also include addictive drugs such as cocaine and morphine and drugs that cause hallucinations such as psilocybin from certain mushrooms.

Chemists in universities, research institutes, and drug companies often make chemical modifications to these natural compounds to try and understand how they work. When naturally-occurring intoxicants are outlawed, clandestine chemists also get into the act for a different reason and invariably begin to synthesize compounds that are similar chemically and/or have similar effects in the brain.

Incense and potpourri products largely contain chemicals that are meant to act like the active chemicals in marijuana but are either still legal or not easily detected. The most popular of these chemicals comes from work begun 15 years ago by a now-retired chemist from Clemson University, Dr. John W. Huffman. Dr. Huffman, whose initials JWH are the prefix for these drugs (i.e., JWH-018), was trying to determine the basic chemical structure required for marijuana-like actions.

Dr. John W. Huffman. Credit: Clemson University, Department of Chemistry

Years after his group published the chemical structures and methods to synthesize these compounds, these compounds began appearing in Europe in herbal products that could be smoked like marijuana. The selling point of these products was that they were legal and their psychoactive constituents could not be detected by conventional urinary drug screening.

After these products were outlawed in many European countries, they began appearing in the United States under names like K2, Spice, Black Mamba, Kush, and, now, iAroma or Iaroma. Because the products were sprayed with mind-altering chemicals that were not explicitly outlawed, these products could be freely sold without fear of prosecution. Makers and sellers of these products tried further to get around liability with these products by labeling them as potpourri or incense and indicating that they were not intended for internal human use. Nevertheless, it was clear that these products were intended to be smoked.

More intense, disturbing than the real stuff

However, many of the chemicals in these products have much more intense effects than those present in marijuana. In several hundred comments that I’ve accumulated at my blogs over the last two years, many users have reported that these products produce effects that are quite unpleasant and include racing heartbeat, seizures, and intense feelings of paranoia. Here – 1 and 2 – are two sample comments I received last November. Some of these effects are similar to smoking large amounts and/or very high-grade marijuana. However, intense paranoia and panic occur with these products at relatively low doses because they differ in how they influence brain receptors that bind marijuana compounds.

When these disturbing effects were experienced by individuals with little experience taking intoxicants, poison control centers around the US being reporting a large number of emergency room visits associated with the incense and potpourri compounds.

How these effects are relevant to the death of Max Dobner remain to be shown as toxicology tests are ongoing to determine if he had such chemicals in his bloodstream at the time of the accident. We also have no idea what thoughts may have been going through his head at the time he blew through an intersection across a wall and tree into a house. Even if paranoid delusions were not behind this accident, he could have easily had a heart attack or debilitating seizure.

As a result individual municipalities and states began to outlaw these products and the chemicals present in them. Late last year the US Drug Enforcement Agency issued a rule that temporarily placed five of these chemicals on “Schedule I,” the list of drugs made illegal because they have high addictive potential and no known medical use.

Illegal but tough to enforce

One is legal, one is not. Sort of.

However, the explicitly outlawed chemicals could be modified by small changes in the laboratory to be legal but still have similar intoxicating effects. The jury is out on whether these second-generation incense products are really legal. State legislation, particularly here in North Carolina (where I live), has been so broad as to outlaw hundreds if not thousands of related compounds that may not have even yet been made. The US DEA even has rules that outlaw compounds that are chemically-related to those that have been outlawed but how this provision is enforced is inconsistent and unclear.

So, in reality these products are still widely sold. State and federal chemical analysis laboratories have been swamped with their own enforcement work, particularly in methamphetamine prosecutions, and budget cuts nationwide have further taxed already-overextended enforcement laboratories.

As a result iAroma and other similar products continue to be sold to people like Max Dobner and his friends. Little can be done to stop such sales other than to educate people of the risks of smoking these products.

(I would add though that the publicity surrounding the Max Dobner case has influenced online sales of iAroma: while potpourriandincense.com still appears to sell it, two other sites that showed up on my first Google search page come back with “Product not found!” or “0 results matching your criteria.”)

To educate and honor

To honor Max’s memory and educate others, Max’s mother Karen has established the To the Maximus! Foundation and website:

On June 14, 2011, Max Dobner’s mom, Karen, got the call that no mom wants to get. The mother of three young men was at a friend’s house when the shattering, life-altering message arrived:

Your son was in an accident, and he did not survive.

Max, usually a cautious and responsible person, had entered a local tobacco shop with a friend. There they purchased a legal substance, a synthetic drug marketed and sold as potpourri but smoked by teens. The substance can cause frightening results, including rapid heartbeats, paranoid panic attacks, and hallucinations. Shortly after using this substance, Max got into a car, drove at speeds approaching 100 mph, and ultimately barreled through an intersection, hit a wall, went airborne, and crashed into a house. Max suffered a blunt force trauma to the head and died, leaving behind a devastated family, large circle of friends, and bright future. Max had hoped to study psychology and make a positive impact on the world around him, continuing his service to others.

Max’s family and friends began building a much-wider network of people who are committed to being sure that this tragedy does not befall another family. Through education and a commitment to legislative efforts, they hope that Max’s death and the deaths of other teens who have used synthetic drugs will be the last of these horrific tragedies.

Reflection as a parent*

Credit: Liza McCorkle/iStock

My personal opinion about folks using psychoactive substances is that simply outlawing them does little to influence use. The simple fact that alcohol and tobacco remain legal in the majority of countries results in a hypocrisy that is hard to overcome when telling kids they can’t smoke pot or take hallucinogens or empathogens.

So while I don’t condone breaking any laws, I would tell my own daughter when she gets older that there are wiser choices than others when considering experimentation with mind-altering substances. These synthetic marijuana products are absolutely not one of the wise ones.

My heart goes out to the Dobner family and friends in the aftermath of their tragic loss.

*The preceding section constitutes my personal opinion and does not reflect my those of my university employer, funding agencies, or the host of this blog, the American Chemical Society’s Chemical & Engineering News

Scientific blogposts

For those looking for more detailed scientific information on synthetic marijuana products and the chemicals present in them, I would suggest that you read:

What’s the buzz: Synthetic marijuana, K2/Spice, JWH-018 by us

Synthetic marijuana, K2, Spice, JWH-018 and, you guessed it, dependence by DrugMonkey

Cannabinoid agonist JWH-018 (part 1) and Cannabinoid agonist JWH-018 (part 2) by dr leigh at her Neurodynamics blog

JWH-018, Spice, and Me by British pharmacology graduate Synchronium who used to sell these products at his Coffeesh0p online store (Note: Coffesh0p does not ship products to the US and the link is only provided here for information. These products were sold in Europe several years before they became popular in the US and Synchronium has been an excellent source of information on the usage trends and risks of these products)

DEA already admits defeat on synthetic marijuana ban? by us

15 Comments

  • Jul 16th 201112:07
    by Renee Coale

    Reply

    Fascinating — a good read even for a non-scientist. Hopefully I never have first hand experience with anyone experimenting with synthetic drugs — scary! Thanks, David.

  • Jul 18th 201108:07
    by John Spevacek

    Reply

    I don’t what the challenge is in outlawing variations on a theme. Patents have “Markush” claims, where the key features of the molecule are claimed, and the non-key features, such as substitution of a ethyl/propyl/butyl… for a methyl are also claimed. If inventors can patent all those molecules, the same logic can be used to outlaw them.

  • Jul 18th 201111:07
    by John Beutler

    Reply

    One more reason to decriminalize marijuana. It took over a decade to realize that prohibition of alcohol didn’t work. How many decades will it take to realize that the War on Drugs is just as counterproductive and harmful to society?

  • Jul 26th 201109:07
    by Sue Stout

    Reply

    I have an 18 year old son that is addicted to this “legal” marijuana. He has been through several addiction programs, but soon learned that most drug tests do not pick up this awful drug so he continued to use and collect his AA coins. It’s amazing how many parents don’t have a clue that this is available to anyone who wanders into a gas station. It’s cheap, compared to marijuana.

    It’s lethal and the outcomes of my son’s addiction has rendered him unbearable to live with. He was a bright A/B student prior to this drug coming available. Now he has no goals, no life, no motivation, nothing. His future will be jail, institutions or death because he just continues to justify using it.

    And, still, this crap is being sold in our gas stations. Frying people’s brains. Bath salts were recently taken off the shelf, why isn’t this also removed????

    I will never say that I know what the Dobner’s have gone through, but I will say that I will do anything in my power to join their crusade to get this crap out of our children’s hands!

    • Sep 5th 201118:09
      by Christina

      Reply

      I am in total agreement. I will do whatever I can to remove this poisen from our youth. My son is addicted to this sytyhetic marijuana. It is so very sad. He states has tried to stop on his own, but I am not sure if he is telling the truth. His friend went to an outpatient facility to try and stop smoking it but it did not help him. I do not know what to do. I have tried to encourage my son to try a drug rehab, but he says its a waste of money and it will not help him. He is stealing money from my purse now. Help

    • Nov 13th 201119:11
      by Ed

      Reply

      I am a substance abuse counselor and there are drug screens that test for this (4 kinds) specifically. You may want to check with a local testing agency in your area. I wish you well I know addiction is a terrible and heart breaking disease for family.

  • Sep 12th 201120:09
    by Syracuse

    Reply

    I have actually smoked this stuff to try it out. It’s a lot like smoking pot only, like what was said, A lot more intense. It also lasts quite longer than marijuana. I have a friend that is in rehab that gets drug tested and he still smokes iAroma because it doesn’t show up on the test. In my opinion, This wasn’t the reason that boy died in the car crash. Weed doesn’t make you drive really fast and cause road rage. It’s so blind to blame a drug on people’s problems. Maybe it’s how you raised your kids? Maybe you didn’t hug them enough. Maybe you live in a shitty neighborhood with scumbag kids for yours to hang out with. Parents think they know their kids, but they have ways to hide things. I smoked pot for 8 years before my mom knew i did. She thought i was an angel before then. I’m not a bad person I go to college, and I have goals. Sometimes I smoke pot on the way home from class. Doesn’t ever make me want to speed down the highway. It’s so dumb to just BLAME all these things on the drug when the real problem was probably YOUR parenting.

  • Nov 4th 201122:11
    by john

    Reply

    Do not be fooled into self blame game by admitted current drug users into blaming yourself as a parent for your child going down the the drug induced path! My 19 year old son started smoking this shit two weeks ago, I declared war on it today! You guessed it “hard love” selling his car, killing the iphone, killing the live xbox, no more money for fast food or soda, next shut down college if not b or better. Meet with Navy Recruiter this week……..thats right……doing what I can now to save his life to die without guilt or remorse doing what I can with what I have at my disposal. I blame his group of friends for not seeing him through to better times…. fk those deadbeats!!! All of us parents are in the same boat we need to be tough DADS!!!

  • Nov 4th 201122:11
    by john

    Reply

    By the way we are a affluent family living on a lake 7,000 sq.ft.etc….not a getto…dmb azz. , plenty of hugs coached him in soccer and basketball since 5 yrs. old. He is very artistic and always seeked acceptance from the “popular crowd” a quite and nice kid. Now with this post high school popular group he thinks he is “cool” but in reality he is destroying his brain until he trusts his parents, who love him 1,000,000 times more than these low lifes. If we can just get him through the next three years….do I need to take life insurance out on him???????? Friken Indians selling this shit to kids for profit.. hope their own kids smoke this shit. Americans need to wake the FK up!

  • Dec 28th 201100:12
    by nancy

    Reply

    My boyfriend started using this thing an i really didnt think it was this bad but now that iam reading this omg idont want anything bad to happen to him!

  • Aug 17th 201215:08
    by George from Harvard

    Reply

    I’ve tried legal incense, bath salts, inhalants, hallucinogens, uppers, downers, and analgesics, but I don’t do them anymore. For some reason it just makes more sense to smoke dank(MARYJEWANA). Btw If I drink a bottle of 409 and I die, should 409 be removed from the shelves? Also if the teen would have smoked incense and died right there, sure you could blame it on the incense, but him leaving a building and driving into a house (undoubtedly from the incense, Ive expereienced chest pounding and it can be quite scary)cannot be blamed on the subtance itslef, only the ignorance of the teenager(not trying to insult). If I have no drug experience and I knock back 10 30mg Oxys, Im one of two things: ignorant, or wishing for death. You gotta do your research before you go smoking this incense shit/bath salt, Im still alive and rather healthy… Do your research

  • Aug 17th 201215:08
    by George from Harvard

    Reply

    John, by the way great idea. Take away his car, his college, and all of his items that keep him busy. What you’re really doing? setting him up for drug use/addiction

  • Aug 17th 201215:08
    by George from Harvard

    Reply

    And replying to Syracuse, you’re right about parents not knowing their children. My parents have no idea I take oxy 30′s, xanax, (they know i smoke weed, they dont care wouldnt you imagine) stuff like that. Im 19, and when I look at myself i am completely happy with what I see. My parents would be so surprised if they knew I was using these, however they have no idea because i keep my composure. parents really have no idea what their kids are doing, no matter how much they think they do

  • Aug 17th 201215:08
    by George from Harvard

    Reply

    Hey Ed, you might be a substance abuse counselor, but if you’ve never experimented with drugs(not saying u havent) then you really cant say you know ANYTHING about drugs effects on people, sorry but its the truth, and I can back up my information Thanks

  • Jan 27th 201321:01
    by Twelve Step Journaling

    Reply

    Having kids put to jail after experimenting with drugs is a big lie. Drugs must be legalized. I am in narcotics anonymous and recovering addict. I do not hate drugs, I just choose to live without it.

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