Between April 1 and June 30 of this year, New York State saw more than 1,900 emergency department visits and more than 680 poison control center calls associated with synthetic cannabinoid (aka synthetic marijuana) use. This was a tenfold increase over the same period in 2014.
Nationwide, there have been 15 synthetic cannabinoid-related deaths reported to poison control centers during just the first five months of this year. Another startling figure: according to a report from the White House, in 2012, one in nine high school seniors admitted to using synthetic cannabinoids. And that was three years ago.
Synthetic marijuana is an umbrella term for various psychoactive chemicals that are sprayed onto dried plants or herbs, then smoked to achieve a high. Sometimes called “spice,” “spike” or “K2,” it is often available at corner stores or gas stations, labeled as “herbal incense” or “potpourri,” to avoid FDA regulation. Without any regulation, the manufacturers use a mix of unknown chemicals in each packet, meaning that they are wildly unpredictable and incredibly dangerous.
“It is extremely unpredictable… It’s quite dangerous in that way.” – Dr. Miller
Efforts to outlaw the drug have been largely ineffective—in 2012, the US tried to ban synthetic cannabinoids under the “Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act,” but manufacturers had to simply tweak the contents to skirt the ban.
Ivan Miller, MD, Director of Emergency Medicine at Westchester Medical Center, Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital and MidHudson Regional Hospital, all part of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network, tells us more about synthetic marijuana, including why it is so dangerous.
Q: What are common side effects of someone who has overdosed on synthetic marijuana?
A: You have to understand that we’re not talking about one drug. Even one package probably has 10 different active ingredients, and package-to-package the chemical content varies, so the effects are variable. It is extremely unpredictable.…It’s quite dangerous in that way. In the case of K2 and the so-called “synthetic marijuanas,” it’s variable. There may be people who use these substances and are calm, but what we see ranges from [patients who are] agitated to delirious and sometimes exhibiting violent behavior. We see patients who come in and have stopped breathing and need to be put on life support. So it’s a very wide range, what we see, and it’s almost as if we’re talking about multiple different drugs.
Q: Are we seeing more overdoses related to synthetic marijuana?
In the past year, we have seen more cases. Why particular drugs become popular is hard to say; one possible reason has to do with avoiding law enforcement. Even though the DEA and other organizations have moved to make these drugs illegal, I think they were first invented and sought as a way of creating a legal drug, and they’re marketed as legal alternatives to marijuana, even if they’re not technically legal anymore. Then perhaps there are some people who like the effects. From a medical perspective, it’s hard to say.