Synthetic Cannabinoids aka Synthetic Marijuana: What Parents Need to Know

In observance of National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week, we spoke to Sgt. Phil McMullin, public information officer with Orange Police Department, on the dangers of synthetic cannabinoids and its rise in popularity among teens.

What are synthetic cannabinoids/marijuana?

Synthetic cannabinoids refer to a growing number of man-made, mind-altering chemicals that are either sprayed on dried, shredded plant material so they can be smoked (herbal incense) or sold as liquids to be vaporized and inhaled in e-cigarettes and other devices (liquid incense).

What is in them?

Synthetic marijuana is a designer drug that does not contain marijuana but rather contains any of a variety of plants sprayed with laboratory-produced chemicals.

Synthetic cannabinoid products may also be contaminated with other drugs or toxic chemicals, such as synthetic cathinones (“bath salts” or “flakka”).

They contain powerful chemicals called cannabimimetics and can cause dangerous health effects.

Why are they called “cannabinoids”?

These chemicals are called cannabinoids because they act on the same brain cell receptors as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main active ingredient in marijuana.

Synthetic cannabinoids are sometimes misleadingly called “synthetic marijuana” (or “fake weed”), and they are often marketed as “safe” legal alternatives to that drug.

What are the effects of synthetic cannabinoids?

Synthetic cannabinoid products can be toxic. As a result, people who smoke these products can react with rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion, and hallucinations.

Synthetic cannabinoids can affect brain function. Signs and symptoms include:

  • Agitation and irritability
  • Confusion and concentration problems
  • Hallucinations, delusions, psychosis, suicidal thoughts, and violent behavior
  • Seizures
  • Sleepiness and dizziness
  • Breathing problems
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Heart attack, fast heart rate, high blood pressure, and stroke
  • Kidney failure
  • Muscle damage

Case Reports:

In 2013, Colorado hospitals reported an increase in admissions to emergency departments from people using synthetic marijuana. Of the 127 patients, over half had rapid heart rate and high blood pressure, many had aggressive or violent behavior, agitation or confusion, 16 had to be admitted (10 to the intensive care unit), and one 15-year-old boy died.

In Florida, there was a report that two young siblings using Spice were taken to the emergency department because they were suffering from an “acute cerebral infarction,” otherwise known as a stroke. This report also talks about other patients coming in with heart attacks from using these substances.

The LA Times reported that in 2011 there were 29,000 emergency department visits nationwide from fake marijuana use, up from 11,000 in 2010.

Who is buying this drug?

A University of Michigan study revealed that from 2011 to 2013, 10.1 percent of high school seniors reported past-year use of synthetic cannabinoids.

The drug is the second most used illicit drug among high school seniors, behind marijuana, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

These drugs are popular with high school-aged teens, in part because they are easy to get and are marketed as “natural” and “harmless.”

In 2017 poison centers received reports of nearly 2,000 exposures to synthetic cannabinoids.

Is it legal?

The federal government has banned many specific synthetic cannabinoids

Makers of synthetic cannabinoids try to get around these laws by creating new products with different ingredients or by labeling them “not for human consumption.”

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