Synthetic cannabis has been linked to a variety of serious problems over the past few years, and now it seems to have struck again. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) synthetic cannabis has been linked to an outbreak of illness affecting at least 221 people in Colorado over the past month. Outbreaks such as these frequently lead to the raising of the question of whether the synthetic version of marijuana is more dangerous than the real thing.
Those affected by this most recent outbreak of synthetic cannabis-related illness presented with complaints primarily related to high blood pressure, agitation and confusion. While several patients were reportedly hospitalized, no deaths have been confirmed as a result of this outbreak.
This is not the first time that synthetic cannabis has been linked to serious medical issues. It is also widely considered to be a trigger for acute psychosis, sometimes referred to as ‘spiceophrenia’ because of the way its symptoms mimic those of schizophrenia.
Delusional thinking, disorganized thoughts, seizures, agitation, suicidal ideation, and depression are commonly associated with use of the drug. It has also been connected to a number of cardiovascular incidents, even among the very young and otherwise healthy as well as severe kidney damage.
Violent outbursts are also a commonly reported effect of synthetic cannabis. A growing number of unprovoked assaults have been reported to have been associated with the drug.
Synthetic cannabis is commonly known as ‘spice’ or ‘K2’ and is sold under a variety of brand names, often under the guise of being natural incense or potpourri. It consists of a variety of dried non-cannabis plant material that is sprayed with cannabinoids. Because the specific chemical components used can vary, there is no way to predict a person’s consistent experience of the drug. Different chemicals will produce different side effects.
The varied chemical composition can also make it difficult for drug enforcement agencies to keep up with. Just as one chemical is deemed illegal and its sales prohibited, another takes its place. When synthetic cannabis was first introduced to America in 2009, it was legal. Today there are federal laws prohibiting its sale and laws doing the same in 45 states. Four stores that were identified as sources of the synthetic cannabis by those who became ill in this recent Colorado outbreak have since been shut down. Although natural marijuana is legal in the state, synthetic is not.
In spite of its name and similar appearance, synthetic cannabis is really nothing at all like natural marijuana. The chemical structures of the two drugs are different enough that synthetic cannabis is actually believed to have an effect anywhere from five times stronger than the real thing to 800 times stronger, depending on the particular chemicals used. Therein lies the key to the risk of more intense dangers associated with synthetic cannabis as compared to the real thing.
While some of the effects known to be associated with synthetic cannabis have also been associated with natural marijuana, they are generally associated in a much less intense capacity. While marijuana use is associated with some psychological impact, this is most commonly in the form of limited short-term impaired judgment, memory lapse and learning difficulties. Acute psychosis is rare. Likewise, serious agitation and violent outbursts are very rarely associated with the use of natural marijuana. The risk of seizures, cardiovascular issues and kidney disease are also much lower with the use of natural marijuana as opposed to synthetic.
Synthetic marijuana is now the second most-used drug among high school students, trailing behind only its natural counterpart. As use is on the rise and manufacturers continue to create new formulations in efforts to avoid being shut down, the intense dangers of synthetic cannabis as opposed to natural are likely to become even more problematic.
By Michele Wessel