They were legal, but now they are not.
One was an alcoholic energy drink, a blend of caffeine and alcohol. The other was a mix of chemically coated dried plant matter sold as synthetic marijuana. Under a variety of brand names, both were available for purchase at convenience stores, gas stations and online and were popular among teens and young adults.
Amid reports of abuse and illness, the federal government stepped in. Now, the beverages have been reformulated, and the fake pot is off the market.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began reviewing caffeinated alcoholic beverages in 2009. However, the controversy came to a head this past October when nine underage college students from the same school were hospitalized after drinking the beverage, Four Loko. FDA intervention started in November when the agency notified four manufacturers that their products were in violation of the food additive section of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). The FFDCA stipulates that unless a food additive is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), meaning it has been found to be safe at all levels or amounts, it must have premarket approval before it can be used as an ingredient. Caffeine does not have this approval for alcoholic beverages.
The products in question are a mixture of 12 percent alcohol per volume (an “average” beer has four percent alcohol) and the caffeine equivalent of a large cup of coffee. In addition to Four Loko, caffeinated alcoholic beverages include Joos, Max, Core, High Gravity, HG Green and Moonshot. The caffeine in these beverages masks the effects of the alcohol. Not feeling drunk, consumers continue drinking, becoming highly intoxicated. Several deaths of college students have been linked to caffeinated alcohol. At least one lawsuit is pending.
In response to the FDA, manufacturers have begun changing the content of their drinks. The beverages can still be purchased, but they no longer contain caffeine.
In December, The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) placed a 30-day ban that can be extended for an additional six months on the sale or possession of synthetic marijuana and on the substances in the product that mimic THC, marijuana’s active ingredient. During this time, the DEA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) will decide whether to make the prohibition permanent.
Labeled as incense or potpourri and sold under names like Spice, K2, Blaze and Red X Dawn, synthetic marijuana is popular among teens and young adults who view it as a harmless, lawful alternative to the real thing.
Smoking fake pot produces a marijuana-like high from research chemicals (experimental substances not approved by the FDA for human consumption) that have been sprayed on the product. In addition to getting users high, these chemicals also make many of them sick. Last year, poison control centers around the country fielded over 2,000 calls related to synthetic marijuana. Symptoms reported include racing heartbeats, elevated blood pressure and nausea.
The chemicals are now classified as Schedule 1 substances. Not considered legitimate for medical use, they share this category with heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), mescaline and marijuana.
Though now illegal, synthetic marijuana may be available on the black market. Few contractors drug test for fake pot, but the technology exists. Be familiar with your employer’s drug test policies.
Parents should continue to be on the lookout for anything resembling incense in their children’s rooms. They should also watch for signs of increased anxiety.
For concerns about synthetic marijuana, the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) offers free and confidential services 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Access all local poison centers by calling 1-800-222-1222.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]