Mass Overdoses from Synthetic Marijuana Remind Need for Public Education

By New Frontier Data

Wednesday’s reported mass overdose on synthetic cannabinoids by nearly 80 people near Yale University – on the heels of 300 reported cases in a two-week span in Washington, D.C – serves as stark reminder to public health officials and the legal cannabis industry at large the need for better awareness and transparency about the risk posed by “Spice” or “K2” and similarly produced underground compounds wholly unrelated to natural cannabis.

Beyond the potentially grave medical risks to consumers, industry stakeholders should beware too of the need for public education about the issue. Some storefronts selling synthetic marijuana have even advertised it as a “natural alternative” to cannabis, even though in practical terms it serves as neither.

The first differentiator between naturally occurring cannabis versus synthetic cannabinoids is that the latter is not one thing, but rather a category of them: Man-made chemicals which interact with the same cell receptors in the brain as THC, the active ingredient in natural cannabis.

In short, the similarities end there, though manufacturers of the synthetic drugs tie in an association by spraying their chemicals onto dry, diced-up plant matter for sale in baggies to be smoked. Most public health experts reject the term “synthetic marijuana” because of the fundamental dissimilarity, preferring instead “synthetic cannabinoids.”

The incidents suggest the continued popularity of synthetic cannabinoids as a recreational drug in the United States. As views toward cannabis have softened over previous decades, common misperceptions have led to increased use of entirely different drugs and chemical compounds going by the assumed name.

Whereas the use of cannabis dates back to 2727 BC, synthetic cannabinoids link directly back to a Clemson University chemist’s work in the early 1990s. Within 15 years of the compound’s description in scientific papers, journals, and a book, the DEA identified it as the “first synthetic cannabinoid to be identified as a product adulterant in Germany,” aka the underground product called Spice. Similar illicit compounds include K2, Bliss, Cowboy Kush, and Scooby Snax.

As the CDC notes, it is hard to know what the products contain or what a user’s reaction will be. Since there are no standards for making, packaging, or selling synthetic cannabinoids, any two packets of a brand-named product may range wildly in the amount or potency of different chemicals (even within the same original batch). Before hitting the street, the illicit cannabinoid products may also be cut or contaminated with other drugs or toxic chemicals, such as synthetic cathinones (“bath salts,” or “flakka”).

While local, state, and federal laws exist to target specific synthetic cannabinoids, the lack of chemical consistency and the ever-changing recipe of legal chemical ingredients used to make the products bedevil legislators, while makers of the products have been known to label them “not for human consumption” to get around the laws.