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Synthetic Marijuana: Side Effects and Potential for Overdose

What are the dangers of Synthetic Marijuana?

The dangers of synthetic marijuana are numerous. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains, synthetic marijuana (also known as synthetic cannabinoids) refers to a variety of illegal manmade chemicals that are sold in a liquid format (to be vaporized, such as in an e-cigarette) or sprayed on plant matter (looks like herbal incense and can be smoked or used to make a tea). Typically, the illegal manufacturer of synthetic marijuana is replicating the chemical structure of naturally occurring cannabinoids. However, some makers, concentrated mainly in Asia, will depart even from this dangerously low standard of fake cannabinoid production and simply create poisonous chemicals. One of the gravest dangers associated with synthetic marijuana use is that there is absolutely no way for the user to know what harmful, and in some instances, even fatally toxic chemicals may be present.

Synthetic marijuana is also especially dangerous to use because of the false advertising involved in its sale. In the US, this drug type can be purchased (where not prohibited by law) in corner stores, gas stations, and online.

There’s an interesting and dangerous interaction between those who sell and those who buy synthetic marijuana. In order to clear customs or avoid the suspicion of law enforcement, synthetic marijuana (in its plant matter form) is usually sold in colorful foil packages and labeled as “incense” and “not for human consumption.” The packaging also includes a name, such as the popular K2 or Spice; these are common street names for synthetic marijuana, or fake weed. The manufacturer and the seller know that the packaging is not telling the truth, as do purchasers. A major concern, however, is the fact that this undercover drug is for sale, sometimes legally (only because laws haven’t caught up to each formulation), makes the public think it’s safe. That is a prevailing assumption, and the opposite is true.

The side effects of synthetic marijuana are truly alarming. As Slate reports, the following are some of the known serious side effects that can emerge:

  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Severe anxiety
  • Catatonia
  • High blood pressure
  • Rapid heartrate
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Acute kidney failure
  • Addiction

Since the side effects of synthetic marijuana can be so serious, it is no surprise that the media has picked up on stories and published them nationwide. As CNN reports, in 2012, a teen from Houston was hospitalized after smoking synthetic marijuana. The teen experienced several strokes that paralyzed her, and left her blind and unable to process her environment. In addition, the teen experienced severe brain damage, with a large portion of her brain having been destroyed. It was learned that the teen had smoked synthetic marijuana every day for two weeks before being hospitalized. Most fortunately, after nine months of rehabilitative treatments, the teen is back in school, though she can no longer read or write. The teen has pledged to spread the message about the dangers of synthetic marijuana, using her personal experience as a guide and teaching point.

Using synthetic marijuana can easily land a person in an emergency room. As Slate notes, per the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in 2011, there were about 28,531 visits to emergency rooms across the US that involved the use of synthetic marijuana. That number is 2.5 times larger than the number in 2010.

Synthetic marijuana use can cause a fatal overdose. As CBS reports, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the first six months of 2015, there were 15 fatal overdoses due to synthetic marijuana use. The number shows a threefold increase from the first six months of 2014. A major concern, again, is that it is safe to assume that different manmade chemicals triggered these fatal overdoses. By extension, it is exceptionally difficult for law enforcement to intercept these drugs and remove them from the street before they harm users, possibly fatally.

In view of how difficult it is to root out all variations of synthetic marijuana, public education is going to be a leading effort to prevent further abuse. Public education is especially needed as it appears that some of the most vulnerable Americans are susceptible to using synthetic marijuana, including adolescents and the homeless. Individuals who are currently using synthetic marijuana, or who are susceptible (for a host of personal reasons) to using this drug, are strongly encouraged to speak with a professional and get help.

As this discussion makes clear, synthetic marijuana is so dangerous, it may only be a matter of time before use sends a person to the emergency room.