Cannabis is legal in Colorado, yet synthetic cannabis is illegal. In an ironic twist, while natural cannabis has been approved for medicinal purposes in several states, it appears that synthetic cannabis has been linked to illness among 221 people in Colorado.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a joint investigation with Colorado health officials was launched when hospitals started reporting a significant increase in the number of emergency room visits attributed to the synthetic cannabis. From mid-August to mid-September the investigation documented 221 probable cases in Colorado, and 127 of the cases were further investigated. All of the cases have been located in and around Denver and Colorado Springs. None of the illnesses led to death, but 10 people were admitted into intensive care. Sources say the stricken patients were overwhelmingly male with a median age of 26. All of the patients were treated and released.
Although natural cannabis has long been considered an anti-nauseant, the symptoms of synthetic cannabis are quite different. Out of 127 cases, 64 percent had high blood pressure, 32 percent said they were agitated, and 25 percent reported confusion.
So, what is synthetic cannabis?
They call it Spice or K2. It can be found in smoke shops usually being sold under a variety of brand names, and presented in colorful packaging. Apparently, synthetic cannabis can cause episodes of acute anxiety and psychosis, prompting the slang term “spiceophrenia” among users. In other words, though not resulting in clinical cases of schizophrenia, spiceophrenia might take a person part of the way there. In the case of 221 patients in Colorado, it was too close for comfort.
Similarly, the Metropolitan Hospital Center in New York City performed research into synthetic cannabis from September 2012 to February 2013. Researchers were then able to describe the symptoms of 50 patients who they treated for intoxication from synthetic cannabis.
Synthetic cannabis has been linked to illness with the following primary symptoms in nearly all patients: severe agitation, disorganized thoughts, paranoid delusions, and assaultive behavior. Secondary symptoms included suicidal thoughts among 30 percent, anxiety among 28 percent, depression among 20 percent, and catatonia among 0.05 percent of patients.
From the state level to the federal level, there have been numerous attempts to ban synthetic cannabis in the U.S.A. since it first appeared in 2009. It is difficult to regulate because there are so many possible configurations of the chemical make-up of synthetic cannabis that as soon as one is criminalized, a variation will appear that is not yet illegal.
Monitoring the Future, a University of Michigan longitudinal study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has studied secondary school drug and cannabis use since 1975. In an update report released Wednesday, usage of synthetic cannabis among students dropped from 11 percent in 2012 to 8 percent in 2013. A growing number of teenagers see synthetic cannabis as dangerous and not worth the risk.
Though the study has been variously interpreted, the report itself indicates a leveling off of cannabis usage among teenagers. According to the study, “In 2010 a significant increase in daily use occurred in all three grades, followed by a nonsignificant increase in 2011. In 2012 there were non-significant declines for daily use in the lower grades and a leveling at 12th grade with use reaching 1.1 percent, 3.5 percent, and 6.5 percent in grades 8, 10, and 12, respectively.”
During the recent Colorado investigation, two new kinds of synthetic cannabis were found. Known as ADBICA and ADB-PINACA, the latter may also be implicated in a similar outbreak in Georgia, also in August, 2013.
As a result of this investigation linking synthetic cannabis to illness, four stores in Colorado identified by the ill patients as selling the synthetic cannabis have been shut down by law enforcement.
By Alex Durig, Ph.D.