Synthetic cannabinoids—also known as synthetic or fake marijuana—have been in the news a lot lately. Communities are growing increasingly concerned about the availability and use of these products, in part because they are easily available—sometimes without age restrictions. They can also be difficult to detect in drug tests because new synthetic cannabinoids are being produced constantly.
This constant creation of new substances also means that synthetic cannabinoids are especially difficult to regulate. Even more worrisome, these drugs also contain unpredictable contaminants because they are made illegally; often outside the United States. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and nearly all states have attempted to take some regulatory control over synthetic cannabinoids as they are identified. However, manufacturers continue to change their chemical recipes to evade current laws and regulations to continue marketing these products as “legal highs.” The ingredients are rarely labeled on the packaging, and the brand names vary widely.
Some people incorrectly assume that synthetic cannabinoids are safe. This is far from the truth. Using these substances can result in severe agitation, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, tachycardia (racing heartbeat), elevated blood pressure, tremors, seizures, hallucinations, paranoid behavior, and non-responsiveness. The number of emergency room visits involving synthetic cannabinoids increased significantly from 11,406 visits in 2010 to 28,531 visits in 2011, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN).
While these drugs are most commonly used by young males, females and people of all ages and are using them at increasing rates. In order to combat this wave of new synthetic drugs, we will need to work together—federal, state and local governments, community organizations, schools, parents and caregivers, educators, and healthcare providers—to educate the public, focus on prevention, and support treatment.
Health professionals in the emergency room can seek information from other sources, such as medical toxicologists or poison control center staff, who may be better informed about new designer drugs. Educators can help prevent use of synthetic cannabinoids by addressing use of these substances in programs designed to prevent illicit drug use, such as the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Drug-Free Communities Program. Parents can discuss the dangers of these drugs with their children and use parental controls for online purchases. Medical professionals need to understand the effects of synthetic cannabinoids, so that supportive care and treatment can be provided to patients who experience their adverse effects. Together, we can stop the spread of synthetic cannabinoids.