The Dangers of Synthetic Cannabis

Heart palpations. Hallucinations. Paranoia. Confusion. Increased blood pressure. Acute as well as permanent psychosis. 11,400 emergency room visits in a single year.

Would you believe me if I told you that all of these symptoms can be caused by a legal drug? In fact, users have reported such effects after smoking Spice, the most common name for synthetic cannabis (other names include K2 and fake weed). Spice has become increasingly popular over the past several years, particularly among young people. Indeed, “…of the illicit drugs most used by high-school seniors, [synthetic cannabinoids] are second only to marijuana,” perhaps because it can be obtained so easily at head shops, convenience stores, and online, and because it is falsely advertised as being an “all-natural” product. Furthermore, most drug screenings don’t test for Spice.

Arguably the most dangerous thing about Spice is the lack of research that surrounds it. There is a bounty of anecdotal evidence that links synthetic cannabis to disastrous consequences, but very little consistent information to be found about its effects. For example, three teenaged boys suffered heart attacks after smoking Spice. A girl in Texas fell victim to a string of strokes and is now blind and paralyzed. However, on the other hand, there are users who report mild, marijuana-like effects, such as relaxation.

The extreme variation in responses can be attributed to the fact that there is likewise substantial disparity between one the substances in one packet of “herbal incense” and the next. Spice is made by spraying dried plant material with an assortment of synthetic chemicals, some of which were originally created to fertilize plants and to treat cancer. As one source put it, “For so-called legal highs, we have a case of multiple manufacturers spiking their various products with inconsistent amounts of potentially dozens of compounds.” The Maximus Foundation compiled a list of user testimonials illustrating the breadth and deviation of effects.

Several of these synthetic cannabinoids – such as JWH-018 and CP 47,497 – are much more potent than actual THC. “Most of these… exert greater maximum effects at [cannabinoid] receptors – in pharmacology terms, THC is called a ‘partial agonist’ while JWH compounds are often ‘full agonists’ at these receptors.” So while individuals may turn to Spice in hopes of obtaining a legal high similar to that of marijuana, it is likely that the increased potency and significant variation in these synthetic chemicals will pose real dangers to the user.

At this point, you are probably asking how this drug could still be sold legally. Dr. Jason Jerry explains, “These substances are legal simply because of a clever marketing ploy, not because they aren’t dangerous.” This marketing tactic is the fact that distributors label the incense with the caveat, “Not for human consumption.” State governments have outlawed various synthetic compounds found in Spice, but as soon as one becomes illegal, a new chemical is created. It’s essentially a game of cat and mouse, and it seems that the mouse is still successfully evading being caught.

Ultimately, the best thing we can do is conduct controlled, empirical research to better understand these synthetic drugs. Until then, personal responsibility and awareness is paramount. – by Betty Vine 

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