Synthetic Marijuana Emergency Visits More Than Double

Caroline Cassels

October 16, 2014

The number of emergency department (ED) visits involving synthetic cannabinoids, otherwise known as "synthetic marijuana," has more than doubled in 1 year.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that the number of ED visits involving these substances rose from 11,406 in 2010 to 28,531 in 2011.

Overall, there were 1.2 million ED visits in 2011 related to illicit drugs.

Synthetic cannabinoids are not derived from the marijuana plant but allegedly have the same effect as marijuana. These substances are known by such street names as "K2" or "Spice" and contain varying amounts of different ingredients ― including contaminants that can result in the products' having unpredictable effects on users.

Reported adverse effects of synthetic cannabinoids include severe agitation, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, racing heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, tremors, seizures, hallucinations, paranoid behavior, unresponsiveness, and even death. Regular use of the drug can result in withdrawal symptoms.

"Synthetic cannabinoids are a growing public health risk ― made even more dangerous by the widespread misconception that they are safe and legal," SAMHSA Administrator Pamela S. Hyde said in a release. "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," she added.

Among adolescents aged 12 to 17 years, ED visits involving synthetic cannabis use doubled from 3780 visits in 2010 to 7584 visits in 2011. Visits among those aged 18 to 20 increased 4-fold ― from 1881 visits in 2010 to 8212 visits in 2011.

SAMHSA reports that in 2011, males accounted for nearly 79% (19,923 visits) of all ED synthetic cannabinoid–related visits. However, there was a 3-fold increase between 2010 and 2011 in ED visits involving females using synthetic cannabinoids.

The Synthetic Drug Prevention Act of 2012 was enacted in July of that year. This act specifically prohibits the sale or possession of some synthetic cannabinoids and so-called bath salts.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration and nearly all the state governments have also taken some regulatory action against these products once they have been identified. But SAMHSA points out that regulation remains a challenge, because manufacturers of these compounds continue to modify their chemical structures in a bid to skirt the laws.

The full report is available on the SAMSHA website.

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