New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has issued a warning after more than 160 people in just nine days have been sent to emergency departments for adverse reactions to synthetic marijuana. The story highlights the dangers of the synthetic drugs, often known as “K2” or “spice,” which have been the subject of much scrutiny in recent years but are still causing problems across the country. The message is clear: just because it’s legal or appears to be natural doesn’t mean it’s safe.
What Is Synthetic Marijuana?
Synthetic marijuana is a term that describes a wide range of substances that are all “designer” cannabinoids (the type of chemicals found in marijuana), in part designed to evade the restrictions placed on substances by the law. The drugs appear to be natural, being primarily composed of dried plant matter, but in reality the plant matter is inactive, and the effects come wholly from the synthetic chemicals they’re coated in. They’re sold as “incense” and “not for human consumption,” but this is simply a farce designed to skirt the law. While five of the chemicals commonly used in synthetic marijuana products have been designated as Schedule I substances, manufacturers are able to evade such restrictions by changing the chemicals added to the drug. The result of this cycle of finding and exploiting a legal loophole before it’s slammed shut by authorities is that it’s incredibly hard to say what will be present in any given bag of “spice.” The effects of the drugs are comparable to those of marijuana, with the substances used in them interacting with the same parts of the brain as real pot. However, the synthetic compounds used bind more strongly to the receptors in the brain than the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol—the main psychoactive ingredient) in marijuana, meaning that the effects are many times stronger, and the risk of negative reactions is multiplied.
Spike in Hospital Visits in N.Y. and Elsewhere
The rise in hospital visits in New York has prompted authorities to issue health warnings about the risks of synthetic marijuana. The increase could be due to many factors, but ultimately the unreliability of the chemicals present clearly has a large role to play. The rapidly narrowing range of substances that can be legally sold as part of “spice” could also be an important factor, as it drives manufacturers to use new, even less familiar substances in their place. The same trend of rising hospitalizations has been occurring in other parts of the country, too. The Alabama Department of Public Health has issued a warning, after 98 overdoses believed to be linked to the drug were reported within a single month, and Mobile County alone has seen more cases so far in 2015 than it did in all of 2014. Additionally, poison control centers in Mississippi reported 97 cases of exposure to the drugs over just eight days.
Health Risks of Synthetic Marijuana
The most crucial thing to understand about synthetic marijuana is that it is not comparable to pot in terms of risk. In fact, it appears to be significantly more dangerous. First, addiction is a very real concern, with users showing signs of dependence and withdrawal. Callers to poison control centers after exposure to the drugs frequently report rapid heart rate, agitation, extreme anxiety, confusion, hallucinations and vomiting. The drug is also known to increase blood pressure, lead to reductions in blood flow to the heart and in some cases cause heart attacks. It does have some effects comparable to pot—with users frequently reporting relaxation and altered perception—but the effects, both positive and negative, are more extreme. The biggest problem is what we don’t know. Given the relative novelty of synthetic marijuana, there has been limited time to study it, and the massive variation in chemical composition from one brand—or even one batch—to the next makes it even harder to know what the likely risks are. It’s a game of Russian roulette, where nobody really wins apart from the amateur, illicit chemists who manufacture the drugs.
Reducing the Abuse of Synthetic Marijuana
Despite attempts to stamp out synthetic marijuana through legislative changes, the nature of designer drugs makes such rules easy to avoid. The result is a game of legislative whack-a-mole, with chemicals being banned, alternatives being substituted in their place, the alternatives being banned and so on. The real tragedy of all of this is that it’s the users who suffer, exposing themselves to unknown risks (as well as many known ones) as they take different experimental drugs week after week. The increase in hospitalizations in New York and elsewhere draws attention to the risks of synthetic marijuana, and this may be the most productive approach for reducing its abuse. The perception that synthetic marijuana is “natural” or “safe” is ultimately doing a lot of harm, combining with the drugs’ quasi-legal status to give the impression that they aren’t as dangerous as illicit or obviously synthetic drugs. Sadly, this is patently false, on every account, and the more teens we make aware of this, the more we’ll protect them from being duped into trying a dangerous substance and landing in an emergency room. Lawmakers should try to keep pace as best they can, but providing reliable information about the risks and educating those at risk is absolutely crucial.