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Athletes fumble in end run around drug tests

A football player suffers a bad reaction after allegedly using synthetic marijuana, an easy-to-get drug that can cause unpredictable responses.

Synthetic weed, or Spice, might look like weed, but it can be more than 20 times as potent. Its appeal: drug tests don't pick it up.
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Corbis

Synthetic marijuana can be genuinely dangerous.

Chandler Jones, a 25-year-old defensive end on the New England Patriots, ran shirtless through the parking lot of a Foxborough, Massachusetts, police station on Sunday after smoking synthetic marijuana, according to a report in The Boston Globe. Jones was reportedly in a confused state, a common reaction to the drug, before seeking medical attention.

On Thursday, Jones acknowledged that he made "a pretty stupid mistake." He didn't say what he actually ingested.

If the Patriots star did smoke Spice, a common name for synthetic weed, he isn't the first person to suffer the drug's frightening side effects. Synthetic marijuana, which began gaining popularity about a decade ago, is dried plant matter sprayed with a psychoactive chemical compound. You can find it at gas stations, novelty stores and head shops in colorful packages sporting names like "Bizarro" and "Cloud9."

More than 500 brands of the drug, each with a different mix of compounds, are sold in the United States. The startling diversity has made it difficult to control. Worse, it makes Spice a completely unpredictable experience, says Dr. Donna Bush, a forensic toxicologist at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration,

"People are thinking it's marijuana, more of a relaxing experience," said Bush. They're not expecting something that's "physiologically terrifying."

Data on how much people are using synthetic weed is hard to come by. But a quick Google search shows the drug is getting popular.

The fact that synthetic weed is easy to get -- it's typically sold as incense -- is part of its appeal, experts say. Unlike real weed, which requires a prescription in most of the states where you can legally buy it, synthetic weed can be bought with cash or a credit card. Nothing else needed.

Synthetic weed is also cheap. The drug sells online for about $5 per gram, about a fifth of the price a similar amount of good bud would cost.

Athletes might also like Spice because it's an end run around drug tests. Players can be suspended for using recreational substances and performance-enhancing drugs, not that the penalties appear to have stopped their use of either.

In December, a defensive tackle at Ole Miss became so paranoid and delusional after allegedly using synthetic marijuana that he broke through his hotel room window and fell more than 15 feet to escape from phantom assailants, according to news reports.

Neither the New England Patriots nor the National Football League, which organizes the professional sports league, returned requests for comment. Ole Miss, formally known as the University of Mississippi, didn't respond to a request for comment.

Reactions like the one Jones appears to have had don't surprise Ray Ho, a clinical toxicologist with California Poison Control.

After just a few uses, people can "begin developing psychosis." That means they hallucinate and become paranoid, Ho says, adding that studies show the drug can be 20 times as powerful as marijuana.

"I think it's becoming an epidemic,"

Ho said. "People consider it just as safe as (the marijuana) plant."