Teen narrowly escapes death after smoking synthetic marijuana


Story highlights

Emily Bauer wound up in ICU after her family says she smoked synthetic marijuana

Synthetic marijuana is an herbal mixture sprayed with chemicals

The drug was a form of synthetic weed packaged as "potpourri" at a gas station

The Bauer family is starting a nonprofit organization called Synthetic Awareness For Emily

Hospital staff removed Emily Bauer’s breathing tube and stopped all medication and nourishment at 1:15 p.m. December 16. Only morphine flowed into her body, as the family waited by her side in her final moments.

But the next morning, she was still alive.

“Good morning, I love you,” her mother told Emily as she approached the bed.

A hoarse voice whispered back, “I love you too.”

Emily was back.

Her family said the drug that landed the Cypress, Texas, teenager, then 16, in the ICU two weeks earlier wasn’t bought from a dealer or offered to her at a party. It was a form of synthetic weed packaged as “potpourri” that she and friends bought at a gas station.

At first, her stepfather, Tommy Bryant, said he was “fixing to whip somebody’s ass,” as he thought someone older than 18 bought it for her.

Bryant already knew she used real marijuana occasionally. “It’s not that I condoned it,” he said, adding that he couldn’t follow her around all day. Bryant enforces a strict no-smoking rule in the house, and said that if he ever caught Emily smoking, she’d be grounded.

“Had I thought that there was any chance that she could have been hurt by this stuff, I would have been a lot more vigilant. I had no idea it was so bad,” Bryant said.

“I’d never have thought we’d be in this situation. If she had bought it off the street or from a corner, that’s one thing, but she bought it from convenience store.”

Best known by the street names “Spice” or “K2,” fake weed is an herbal mixture sprayed with chemicals that’s meant to create a high similar to smoking marijuana, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Advertised as a “legal” alternative to weed, it’s often sold as incense or potpourri and in most states, it’s anything but legal.

Synthetic marijuana was linked to 11,406 drug-related emergency department visits in 2010, according to a first-of-its-kind report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This is when it first started showing up on health providers’ radar, as the Drug Abuse Warning Nework detected a measurable number of emergency visits.

Who wound up in the emergency room the most? Children ages 12 to 17.

The first state laws banning synthetic drugs popped up in 2010. Now at least 41 states – including Texas, where Emily lives – and Puerto Rico have banned them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Older legislation targeted specific versions of the drug, but the makers of Spice were a step ahead.

“These drug manufacturers slightly change the chemical compound, and it becomes a different substance that’s not covered by the law,” said NCSL policy specialist Alison Lawrence. “That’s why in 2011 and 2012, we saw the states enacting these broader language bans.”

Synthetic marijuana just as dangerous

Migraines came first

CNN first learned about Emily’s story when her sister, Blake Harrison, wrote an impassioned narrative to CNN iReport. The story was viewed more than 130,000 times, shared more than 25,000 times on Facebook, and dozens of people shared comments, some supportive and others critical.

Harrison said she was surprised by how many people cared, especially on Facebook.

“You think a lot of people are going to say, ‘Oh, it’s just another person hurt by drugs.’ But so many people were sharing it. It was a common ground for people against this stuff because it’s a terrible substance.”

Emily, a straight-A and B sophomore, developed persistent migraines about two weeks before she wound up in the ICU early on December 8, said Bryant. One bad migraine even sent her to the ER, and doctors scheduled an MRI.

But anxiety and claustrophobia prevented Emily from getting the test.

Bryant said doctors at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center said the migraines were possibly related to using the drug.

“We correlated the time she got migraines with the time she started smoking this stuff,” he said. “In their professional opinion, they think it’s related. But medically speaking, they don’t have a picture of her brain from before and after, so they can’t say.”

While her family doesn’t know how long she’d been using the drug, her stepfather suspected she started around two weeks before the night that sent her to the hospital.

Common side effects to smoking synthetic marijuana include bloodshot eyes, disturbed perceptions and a change in mood, said Dr. Melinda Campopiano, a medical officer with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“People can become very agitated or can be come unresponsive – conscious but not reacting normal to situations,” she said. They may also appear paranoid or describe hallucinations. Some of the more potentially serious effects include an elevated heart rate and elevated blood pressure.

Campopiano said she had never heard of a patient having a stroke in these circumstances, but she described how high blood pressure could lead to one.

“Generally, strokes are caused by restricted circulation, or a blood clot that blocks circulation. What we would be looking at with Spice, or K2, is the restrictive circulation model,” she said.

Bryant told CNN that doctors diagnosed his daughter with vasculitis, which is an inflammation of the blood vessels. The vessels going into Emily’s brain were constricting, limiting blood and oxygen flow. Campopiano confirmed that vasculitis is one of the causes of strokes of this type.

“One of the difficulties is that there’s no existing toxicology screen that can reliably detect these substances,” said the physician. “There could very well be harms out there that we don’t know about yet.”

Online tools aimed at educating parents about synthetic drugs

’She was literally just a shell’

Emily complained of a migraine and took a nap at her house after allegedly smoking Spice with friends on December 7, said Bryant. She woke up a different person.