In the past few years, a number of synthetic drugs dubbed synthetic marijuana have hit the black market. Initially legal—because they are as yet unregulated—these drugs often sit on the shelves of truck stops, head shops and online retail establishments in innocent packaging bearing names like “Vanilla Sky” and often described as bath salts with the warning that they are “not for human consumption.”
Unfortunately, though their chemical makeup is dangerous, these drugs are commonly abused by young people and others looking for easy access to a cheap high. Despite the name, however, synthetic marijuana is nothing like marijuana.
Lewis S. Nelson, MD, is a professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine and a medical toxicologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. He says that because synthetic marijuana is so different from natural marijuana, an overdose of the synthetic form is completely different than the natural. It produces the appearance of much harder drugs with much more grave effects on individuals.
In some ways, however, the two substances initially work similarly in the user. Both have substances that bind to the cannabinoid receptors in the brain after the user smokes the substance.
According to Nelson, that’s where the similarity ends: “It has different effects on that receptor, and it has other effects at other receptors as well. It’s incredibly potent, meaning it takes just a little bit to have an effect and this can lead to problems with dose control.”
Synthetic marijuana comes with health risks that users rarely experience when using marijuana. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, these may include the following:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Racing heartbeat
- High blood pressure
- Muscle spasms
- Psychotic episodes
- Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
- Other harmful behaviors
Additionally, chronic use of the drug can lead to addiction that is characterized by withdrawal symptoms when the person attempts to stop using the drug.
There are a number of different types of drugs that fall under the classification of synthetic marijuana. Each has different effects, and depending upon the dose and other factors, patients will experience the drugs differently. This makes it hugely problematic to treat the problem when patients come to the ER experiencing a medical emergency as a result of taking these substances. A recent report found that the number of ER visits caused by this group of drugs doubled in the past few years, due in part to the fact that the drugs are ever-changing in chemical content and often made with contaminants that are unknown and dangerous in and of themselves.
Pamela Hyde is the administrator at the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). She said: “Synthetic cannabinoids are a growing public health risk –made even more dangerous by the widespread misconception that they are safe and legal. These injury reports compel us to get the word out to all segments of the community – especially youth – that these products can cause significant harm.”
The report found the following information:
- In 2010, about 11,400 ER visits were attributed to the use of synthetic marijuana. By 2011, that number had doubled to 28,500.
- ER visits caused by use of synthetic substances doubled from 3,800 in 2010 to 7,600 in 2011 among young people between the ages of 12 and 17.
- Among those between the ages of 18 and 20, the number of synthetic drug-related ER visits quadrupled from 2,000 in 2010 to more than 8,000 in 2011.
- About 79 percent of patients who sought treatment in the ER for synthetic marijuana-related issues were men.
- ER visits by women in need of treatment for emergencies caused by synthetic marijuana use tripled between 2010 and 2011.
Marijuana is a plant, not a synthetic substance. The stems, buds, leaves and seeds from plant formally known as Cannabis sativa are smoked or cooked to release its psychoactive component, the chemical delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The plant material from the marijuana plant may also be concentrated down into a sticky substance called hash or an oily substance called hash oil, and these are intoxicating substances as well.
Though the various manifestations of marijuana can be contaminated, in its natural state, it is not inherently toxic. With the continuing trend to legalize marijuana both for medicinal and recreational purposes, there is greater regulation of the production and distribution of the drug and the products that contain THC, and these regulations will likely increase and become more fine-tuned with an eye toward protecting the consumer over time.
The fact that marijuana is natural does not make it inherently safe, however. In the states where the drug is legal for recreational use, the rates of emergency room visits related to use of the drug have skyrocketed. Additionally, marijuana can negatively impact the following:
- Time perception
- Sensory perception
- Cognitive ability
Regular smoking of marijuana can contribute to the development of respiratory ailments including chronic cough, frequent chest colds and a higher risk of lung infections. If marijuana smoke impacts the user’s mouth, throat and lungs like cigarette smoke does—which is not yet known—it may also contribute to the development of certain cancers like mouth, throat, esophageal and lung cancer.
Addiction is an ongoing risk of marijuana use as well. According to a study published in the journal Addiction Science and Clinical Practice, about nine percent of people who experiment with marijuana will develop a dependence upon the drug. This is characterized by both psychological and physical withdrawal symptoms when the user attempts to stop taking the drug abruptly. Many require treatment in order to avoid relapse in detox.
Synthetic Marijuana and Natural Marijuana: Treatment Can Help
If you, or your loved one, are struggling with abuse of any drug, legal or legal, synthetic or natural, treatment can help. Please call our 24 hour, toll-free helpline to talk to someone about treatment today. Different treatment services will be appropriate for different people in different circumstances, and specifics of that treatment will change depending upon the drug of choice. In all cases, however, seeking treatment is the best course to find recovery from drug use and abuse. Please call now.