Written by: Joe Mangiardi, NES, Inc.
Pictured above is an example of a synthetic marijuana product, marketed as incense—note that it is marked as being “not for human consumption” to bypass health and safety laws otherwise prohibiting its sale.
Synthetic Marijuana Mass Overdoses
Synthetic marijuana was responsible for more than 100 overdoses in New Haven, Connecticut over a two-day period earlier this month. The outbreak was centralized at New Haven Green, a city park located near Yale University. According to NPR article Police Arrest Third Suspect in New Haven Synthetic Marijuana Overdose Case, at the height of the outbreak police were dealing with up to nine overdose cases per hour. Symptoms reportedly ranged from nausea and lethargy to vomiting and loss of consciousness.
Just two months prior, synthetic marijuana was behind over 300 overdoses in Washington, D.C in the span of a couple of weeks. No deaths are reported to have been directly caused by these recent clusters of overdoses; however, Khasion Garland, an inmate of Benner state prison in Florida, died after what a Centre County coroner concluded was an accidental drug overdose—an autopsy found three balloons filled with synthetic marijuana in his system.
What is Synthetic Marijuana?
Synthetic marijuana is a term popularly applied to plant matter sprayed with synthetic compounds developed to interact with the brain’s cannabinoid receptors, as does the major active ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The product of this process has been marketed under numerous names (e.g., Spice, K2, AK-47, Mr. Happy, Scooby Snax) with the selling points of being a safe, natural, and legal alternative to marijuana. In actuality, synthetic marijuana is neither reliably safe nor wholly natural (only the inert plant substance on which the lab-created chemicals are sprayed is natural), and many variations are now illegal in the U.S. Even if any of the chemicals were determined to be safe at certain concentrations (which they have not), there is no way to know what chemicals, or how much of which of them, have been incorporated into the product.
Further, synthetic marijuana is not properly marijuana at all; rather, it is more aptly characterized as a synthetic cannabinoid. The connection with marijuana stems, first, from its ability to mimic the way in which marijuana stimulates one of the two main cannabinoid receptors in the brain. Beyond this, the effect of the high is similar to marijuana in some limited ways, the delivery mechanisms are the same, and the appearance of the various herbs and other plants utilized shares a general visual commonality with marijuana.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse wants to make it clear that synthetic marijuana is not marijuana! The above and other synthetic cannabinoid posters can be found here.
But the similarities stop there. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) synthetic cannabinoids webpage puts it, “Synthetic cannabinoids are not one drug. Hundreds of different synthetic cannabinoid chemicals are manufactured and sold. New ones with unknown health risks become available each year. Synthetic cannabinoids are popular because users often believe they are legal and relatively safe…synthetic cannabinoids may affect the brain in different and unpredictable ways compared to marijuana.”
Many specific synthetic cannabinoids are banned by the federal government, but those who make the products strive to circumvent regulations by altering the ingredients and/or by labeling the products “not for human consumption.” In turn, legislators have implemented laws prohibiting general categories of ingredients as opposed to specific chemicals.
Synthetic Marijuana: Origin Story
Compared to most known narcotics and other drug-containing compounds, synthetic marijuana has not been around for very long. The story primarily began in the late 1980s and 1990s when Clemson University organic chemistry professor John W. Huffman became aware of research identifying cannabinoid receptors as the points of interface between THC and the brain. This provided scientists with a target to aim for in creating compounds specifically designed to interact with those cannabinoid receptors.
Theorizing that benign compounds could be synthesized and used for medicinal purposes to take advantage of this discovery, and with funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Huffman began creating compounds. In 1993 Huffman published a formula for the now-banned compound “JWH-018” in various papers and journals and in a book called The Cannabinoid Receptors. Many more compounds bearing the “JWH” prefix were also created and later banned by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
In 2008 Huffman’s chemicals were utilized by a forensic laboratory in Germany as part of a synthetic cannabinoid cocktail that was being sprayed on plant material and marketed as “Spice.” Following this, health emergencies involving synthetic marijuana began to occur in the U.S. As reported by The Washington Post article How this Chemist Unwittingly Helped Spawn the Synthetic Drug Industry, “The number of calls to poison-control centers involving synthetic cannabinoids soared from 112 in 2009 to 6,549 in 2011, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. During that same period, national statistics show forensic laboratories turned up JWH-018, JWH-073, JWH-200 — as well as two other synthetic compounds — 5,450 times.”
John W. Huffman intended to contribute positively to the field of medicine but instead created harmful compounds infamously bearing his initials.
Huffman certainly had the best of intentions in mind when he began working on the synthetic cannabinoid project. Unfortunately, as the Washington Post article phrases it, “he was unwittingly writing a recipe book of street drugs.”
Synthetic Marijuana Use Signs & Symptoms
The CDC webpage lists the following health effects as being associated with the use of synthetic cannabinoids:
- Agitation and irritability
- Confusion and concentration problems
- Hallucinations, delusions, psychosis, suicidal thoughts, and violent behavior
- Sleepiness and dizziness
- Breathing problems
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Heart attack, fast heart rate, high blood pressure, and stroke
- Kidney failure
- Muscle damage
These symptoms will vary based on the individual and the particular cocktail of chemicals found in a given product or dose. Due largely to the varying and mostly unknown chemical profiles of synthetic marijuana, there is no antidote for overdoses. The best a health care professional can do is to provide such treatments as oxygen, intravenous fluids, and medications to control seizures, agitation, and nausea.
Why do People Use Synthetic Marijuana?
As it turns out, users of synthetic marijuana tend to overwhelmingly prefer the effects of actual marijuana—so why use it? There are two main reasons. The first is that it can be legal—though decreasingly so—and therefore provides an accessible means for achieving a marijuana-like high. The second main reason is because marijuana testing is looking for the presence of THC, which is absent in synthetic marijuana. This can make it an appealing option for individuals in the military, law enforcement personnel, professional athletes, parolees/probationers, and any worker whose employer tests for marijuana.
And many who belong to these demographics will find their situations unchanged even if the state in which they live moves to legalize marijuana, as many states have already done. Therefore, the best way to reduce use of synthetic marijuana is by educating the public about the reality of what they may be exposing themselves to when they consume one of these products.
NPR Article: Police Arrest Third Suspect in New Haven Synthetic Marijuana Overdose Case
Fox News Article: Overdose Total Hits 76 in Connecticut Park Near Yale
NIH Webpage: Synthetic Cannabinoids (K2/Spice) Unpredictable Danger
CDC Webpage: About Synthetic Cannabinoids
Drug Policy Alliance Synthetic Cannabinoid Fact Sheet
NPR Article: America’s Synthetic Marijuana Overdose Crisis, Explained
Centre Daily Times Article: Synthetic Marijuana Killed a Benner State Prison Inmate. 2 People Now Face Charges
The Washington Post Article: How this Chemist Unwittingly Helped Spawn the Synthetic Drug Industry