The parents of a Nebraska teenager who died of a synthetic marijuana overdose have a warning for other parents: It's easy — and legal — for your kids to use this drug.
Billy Tucker, 18, of Greenwood is the first Nebraskan known to have died from an overdose of synthetic marijuana. He took a nap after a night of partying and never woke up.
Tucker's parents had no idea he had even tried the drug. But authorities say it wasn't his first time.
“Billy's not the only one using this,” said his father, Steve Tucker. “A 10-year-old can buy this stuff. That's what's scary.”
Synthetic marijuana is readily available online — so much so that the brand and seller options are overwhelming. Authorities don't know where Tucker bought his, but a search of his phone showed that he had been looking for it online, mostly using social media.
A handful of Omaha businesses questioned by The World-Herald said they don't carry synthetic marijuana. Most forms are illegal to sell and use in Nebraska and Iowa, but newer versions with a different chemical makeup are being legally sold in some areas.
Like its herbal counterpart, synthetic marijuana — or K2, as it's sometimes called — promises a high.
But it also can cause seizures, high blood pressure and, in cases like Tucker's, death.
Nebraska and Iowa lawmakers, health care workers and law enforcement officials are scrambling to get out the warning.
“It's high school kids, college kids using this,” said Dr. Ron Kirschner, a toxicologist at the Nebraska Poison Control Center. “It's easy to get ... and sold on the Internet. They usually say they don't contain banned illegal substances or are not for human consumption.”
Toxicology reports released last week showed that Billy Tucker overdosed on Scooby Snax Potpourri. Steve Tucker said his son bought the drug before a party.
Lancaster County Chief Deputy Jeff Bliemeister said the death investigation revealed that others at the party were smoking marijuana.
Joanie Huss, clinical manager of Journeys, a Catholic Charities facility in Omaha that treats teens with substance abuse problems, said most of her clients have used heavier, illegal drugs but start using synthetic marijuana as a second choice because it goes undetected in the drug screenings used by treatment facilities and authorities.
“They switch to K2 because of the detection piece,” she said, “not because it's that great of a high. They'd rather have the real thing.”
Bliemeister said Tucker bought the legal version because a previous infraction required that him to submit to court-ordered drug tests.
Toxicology reports found K2 in his system, but the investigation into his death has been complicated by a lack of knowledge about lethal levels of synthetic marijuana. The ingredients differ in the various forms of the drug, and the products affect individual users differently.
“These drugs aren't tested,” Kirschner said. “They're just produced, and people are saying 'Let's just see what happens' without having any idea of the effect on the body.”
Teenagers “are the guinea pigs,” said Christine Gabig, a forensic scientist for the Douglas County crime lab.
The synthetic versions of marijuana can cause anxiety and hallucinations similar to the effects of LSD.
And there's nothing natural about it. Various chemicals are turned into powder form. The powder is dissolved in nail polish remover and then sprayed on a plant substance. K2 is smoked using a pipe or rolled in cigarette paper.
In 2009, 15 kinds of synthetic marijuana were on the market. Two years later, that number had risen to nearly 3,000, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
“The drug scene is changing,” Gabig said. “People are making their own high to fit chemically into the receptors of their brains.”
Gabig also has seen more sinister forms of K2 hit the market.
“A person doesn't know what they're getting in each packet,” she said. “That's kind of a recipe for disaster.”
State Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha wants any and all versions of synthetic marijuana banned in Nebraska.
“We've gone a long ways toward where we need to go, but certainly there's going to be an enterprising organization ... that's creating something new,” said McCoy, whose legislation outlawed older forms of the drug. “What's really scary is that these get more and more dangerous each successive generation of these synthetic drugs.”
Bliemeister, the chief deputy, said his department is working with schools to educate people on the dangers of K2.
“We really want parents, kids and school administrators to know that stuff is not without extreme danger,” he said, “and that using it is bad.”