The Dangers of Synthetic Marijuana

Synthetic marijuana, spice involved in rising number of emergency poison center calls

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Recently, marijuana's merits or dangers as a natural product have been hotly debated. Now a new talking point in this debate may have emerged.

A new study found that poison center calls related to the side effects of synthetic cannabinoids saw a major jump during the early months of 2015.

"These products are sold under a variety of names (e.g., synthetic marijuana, Spice, K2, Black Mamba, and Crazy Clown) and can be sold in retail outlets as herbal products," wrote lead study author Royal Law, MPH, of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) National Center for Environmental Health, and colleagues.

According to Law and team, these drugs include a variety of psychoactive chemicals (substances that affect the mind). These chemicals are sprayed onto plant material or herbs and then smoked or ingested by users.

According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC), synthetic cannabinoids are, in reality, very different from marijuana. These man-made compounds are functionally or biologically similar to natural marijuana compounds.

These synthetic drugs can be extremely dangerous and addictive. According to the AAPCC, health effects can be life-threatening and may include severe agitation and anxiety, racing heartbeat, nausea, muscle spasms, seizures, hallucinations, psychotic episodes and and suicidal thoughts.

In early April, the CDC was alerted that US poison center calls related to these drugs had increased.

After looking at data from the National Poison Data System, Law and team found that monthly calls regarding the possible side effects of these drugs had increased from 349 calls in January 2015 to 1,501 calls in April. This is a 330 percent increase over a few months.

These researchers also found that the calls increased 229 percent this year — from 1,085 total calls in 2014 to 3,572 calls in 2015.

The average age of the synthetic cannabinoid users who were the subjects of these calls was 26. The majority of these users (about 80 percent) were men.

Agitation was the most common side effect reported, and was mentioned in about 35 percent of calls. Other common side effects reported were tachycardia (rapid heart rate) at 29 percent, drowsiness and lethargy at about 26 percent, vomiting at about 16 percent and confusion at about 4 percent.

Symptoms considered life-threatening or those that resulted in a serious illness were reported in about 11 percent of the calls. Most of the issues were considered moderate or minor, but 0.5 percent ended in death.

Law and team found that users older than 30 were more likely to report severe issues — compared to users between the ages of 10 and 19.

In 626 of the calls, Law and team found that other substances were used alongside the synthetic cannabinoids. These substances included alcohol, marijuana and benzodiazepines (another type of psychoactive drug).

"Law enforcement agencies have regulated a number of these substances," Law and colleagues wrote. "However, manufacturers of synthetic cannabinoids frequently change the formulation to avoid detection and regulation."

This study was published June 11 in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

No conflicts of interest or funding sources were disclosed.

Review Date: 
June 10, 2015
Last Updated:
June 18, 2015