Data shows that emergency department visits involving synthetic marijuana have more than doubled in recent years. Could this prompt yet more states to alter legislation, especially as those states where medical cannabis has been legalised have reported lower levels of opioid overdose deaths?
Due to growing disenchantment with so-called BigPharma, many people are turning to natural drugs like Thunder God Vine and marijuana to combat chronic pain caused by conditions such as arthritis. Synthetic cannabinoids are not the same as the real thing, however, and are increasingly recognised as a significant risk to public health.
These fake versions of marijuana accounted for 28,531 visits to emergency departments in the US in 2011, up from 11,406 in 2010. Such substances are known as ‘spice’ or ‘K2’, as well as other monikers, and have been found to contain a variety of chemicals, many of which are classes as contaminants that may be harmful to the health of users.
The common misconception that marijuana is safe, and that synthetic marijuana may actually be safer, is just that, a misconception. Many people who would not otherwise use illicit drugs are compelled to do so because of the popularity of the idea that natural herbs are better than pharmaceuticals. While this may be true for some natural supplements, as regards safety, those that have not been rigorously tested, and those that are not well regulated so as to screen for contaminants present unknown risks.
Negative Effects of Synthetic Marijuana
Adverse reactions attributed to synthetic marijuana include:
- Anxiety and intense agitation
- Nausea and vomiting
- Heart palpitations (racing pulse)
- Elevated blood pressure
- Tremors and seizures
- Hallucinations and paranoia
Not only have synthetic cannabinoids been linked to such effects, many of those who use these drugs regularly will also experience withdrawal symptoms when/if they stop. As many users are living in states where marijuana is illegal, this likely means that those experiencing these undesirable effects are not getting medical help or assistance in weaning themselves off the drugs.
Four-Fold Increase in Drug Use in 18-20 Year-Olds
Indeed, the myth that marijuana is safe can lead patients with chronic pain to think that their symptoms are unrelated to the drug, reducing the likelihood of them reporting the negative effects. Those most at risk are thought to be younger users of synthetic marijuana who accounted for 7584 emergency room visits in 2011 (up from 3780 in 2010). There was a four-fold increase in such visits from those aged 18-20, from 1881 in 2010 to 8212 in 2011.
Emergency department visits by women experiencing negative effects of synthetic marijuana rose three-fold between 2010 and 2011, although men still accounted for around 79% of all such visits.
Is Synthetic Marijuana Illegal?
In states where marijuana remains illegal, even for medical purposes, some people may begin using synthetic marijuana, believing it to be legal or less problematic than the real thing. The Synthetic Drug Prevention Act of 2012 specifically prohibits the sale or possession of some synthetic cannabinoids however, putting them in the same category as ‘bath salts’ – the drugs that have attracted plentiful attention for their undesirable side effects.
The illegality of synthetic marijuana actually makes it all the more dangerous because those manufacturing the drugs are continually altering the composition of their product in order to evade the law. Such tinkering with these compounds will not only affect the potential benefits for pain attributed to synthetic marijuana, but also the safety of the products. Buyers hardly ever know exactly what is in each batch and if it will be the same as previous batches.
Legalisation of Drugs for Pain
Natural marijuana is increasingly popular as a way to manage chronic pain, but even this is still of questionable merit. At least in those states where it is legal people are more likely to discuss its use with the physician and promptly address any difficulties experienced with the drug. Legalisation also makes it easier for researchers to investigate the efficacy and side effects of marijuana and better warn patients about potential safety concerns as well as identify those particularly susceptible to the drugs’ effects.
In the meantime, there needs to be better education regarding awareness of the dangers of synthetic cannabinoids, dispelling the myth that these are safe ways to manage chronic pain. This needs to be coupled with improved treatment options for neck pain and other conditions that prompt people to turn to street drugs when disenchanted with mainstream medicine.