Synthetic marijuana, otherwise known as K2 or Spice, is a “designer drug” that’s made to mimic the effects of marijuana. Its chemical composition allowed it to exploit legal loopholes when it was first used in the 2000s, giving many users the false impression that the substance was safe, as well as not being detectable in ordinary drug tests. Despite its “natural” appearance, synthetic marijuana is really plant matter sprinkled with an unknown concoction of synthetic cannabinoids, and its extreme effects have led to extreme concern. A new scientific review article has looked at over 200 studies on user characteristics and the effects of the substances, coming to the conclusion that use of synthetic marijuana use is a problem worldwide.
Investigating Synthetic Marijuana
The study comes from researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the authors aimed to determine who is using synthetic marijuana, their reasons for doing so, how many of them end up in an emergency room, how the drug affects users, whether it’s associated with psychological illness, whether it leads to withdrawal and the number of users who die as a result.
Who Uses Synthetic Marijuana?
The authors found two worldwide surveys, which were conducted between 2011 and 2012, enabling them to get a clear picture of the average synthetic marijuana user. The first survey covered 42 states and 13 countries, finding that the average age users first try the substance is 26, and the overwhelming majority of them are male (83 percent) and white (90 percent). Poly-drug use (use of multiple substances) was common, with both alcohol and ordinary marijuana being used by most synthetic marijuana users, often at the same time.
The second worldwide survey found that about 17 percent of all respondents had used synthetic marijuana, and of those users, 98 percent had also used natural marijuana. The researchers also found that of the users, 92.8 percent preferred natural marijuana, but the small number who preferred the synthetic variety said it was because it was cheap, accessible and not detectable in drug tests.
Evidence from the annual Monitoring the Future survey showed that 8 percent of high school students in the U.S. had used synthetic marijuana in 2012, but this fell to 6.4 percent in 2013. About a quarter of students believed synthetic marijuana to be safer than other drugs. In the military, the drug is also fairly used, with 1.1 percent of non-deployed personnel reporting use, compared to 0.9 percent who used natural marijuana. The authors suggest that military personnel (as well as athletes) use the substance because it doesn’t jeopardize drug test results.
Effects and Side Effects of Synthetic Marijuana
Other evidence uncovered by the authors shows that related emergency room visits are increasing, going from 11,406 in 2010 to 28,531 in 2012, with the average age of those admitted being 22 (the youngest was 13 and the oldest was 59). The authors point out that synthetic marijuana has been found to be two to 100 times more potent than natural marijuana. There are rare instances of kidney injury from using the drugs, as well as four reports of deaths.
The adverse effects of synthetic marijuana usually disappear in a day or two, but some users have suffered psychological problems as a result. According to one of the studies reviewed, 14 men aged 20 to 30 with no prior psychological issues developed psychosis as a result of synthetic marijuana use, with paranoia, thought disorders and suicidal ideation being reported.
Unknown Substances, Unknown Risks
Finally, the authors point out that despite many synthetic marijuana components now being outlawed, alterations to the mixture and chemical changes mean that new versions of the drug can still exploit legal loopholes. Recent reports have suggested that some overdoses in New Hampshire have been related to a product marketed as potpourri called “Smacked,” clearly a new form of synthetic marijuana. Other brands such as “Crazy Monkey” and “Green Giant” have been found to contain controlled substances. These frequent changes affect more than the legality of the substance – they have unpredictable consequences for the user. Taking synthetic marijuana really is like playing Russian roulette.