'Synthetic pot' sending thousands of young people to ER

December 4, 2012 by Alan Mozes, Healthday Reporter
SAMHSA: >11,000 ER visits for synthetic marijuana in 2010
In 2010, more than 11,000 emergency department visits involved a synthetic cannabinoid product (synthetic marijuana, commonly known by street names including "Spice" and "K2"), 75 percent of which were among those aged 12 to 29 years, according to a report published Dec. 4 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

(HealthDay)—U.S emergency rooms tended to more than 11,400 cases of drug-related health complications specifically linked to the use of synthetic marijuana in 2010, a new government report reveals.

Released Tuesday, The DAWN Report from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) attaches a hard figure to the potential health risks associated with the growing use of synthetic marijuana. The report also puts such use in context, observing, for example, that actual marijuana use accounted for far more ER visits (exceeding 461,000) in the same time frame.

"It's not an epidemic," acknowledged Rear Admiral Peter Delany, director of SAMHSA's Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. "But it's a growing problem. And people need to be thinking about it, and how we're going to deal with it."

Since it first came on the scene in the United States in 2008, synthetic marijuana has commonly been sold, with a wink and a nod, under the guise of being an innocuous "herbal incense," according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Until recently, however, customers have sought it out—under names like "Spice" and "K2" —as a legal alternative to real marijuana, based on its reputation as being able to prompt a similar high.

But though it's varying ingredients are typically sprayed in liquid form on top of plant materials, such so-called "fake" marijuana is exactly that: an entirely synthesized and unlabeled chemical concoction, rather than a naturally grown plant.

In the last few years, synthetic marijuana has seen a rapid increase in popularity, particularly among American teens who initially could turn to local convenience stores and the Internet for legal access. The authors of the report point to a 2011 drug-use study that found that more than 11 percent of high school seniors admitted having tried the drug in the prior year.

In light of such numbers, health risk concerns led to sales restrictions in 38 states, and in the summer of 2012 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration imposed a wholesale ban on all sales of synthetic cannabinoids.

The current SAMHSA report uses public health surveillance data on all 2.3 million drug abuse or misuse-related visits to U.S emergency departments in 2010 involving both male and female patients between the ages of 12 and 29 (who account for the bulk of users).

Male patients made up 78 percent of synthetic pot emergencies, the report team noted, compared with 66 percent among authentic marijuana emergencies.

Most (59 percent) of those seeking emergency care following synthetic marijuana use were not using any other drug at the time, while 36 percent had used it in conjunction with one other drug such as actual marijuana, alcohol or prescription drugs.

Most of the synthetic pot patients were ultimately discharged directly from the ER, with less than one-quarter requiring follow-up care after their initial visit, the report noted.

Nevertheless, Delany pointed out that the host of complications that can land a synthetic pot user in the emergency department in the first place are not to be taken lightly.

"I think parents and communities need to become more informed about this drug," Delany said. "They should be aware that you don't know what you're buying when you buy it. You don't know the potency and the chemical compound. And they should also know that young people who use it are ending up in the ER, due to high blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, agitation and sometimes seizures. So you can't say this is a safe drug. Especially if you decide to mix it with other chemicals."

The thought is seconded by Dr. Adam Bisaga, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and an addiction psychiatrist with the New York State Psychiatric Institute.

"Certainly in the context of other forms of drug abuse, the numbers they show here related to synthetic marijuana are nowhere near the numbers associated with, say, painkillers," Bisaga said.

"But with something sold as part of a 'spice package' you might think you're smoking herbs. And they're not herbs. You're not smoking tea or oregano. These are chemicals that are synthesized from scratch to act on the same receptors in the brain as real marijuana. But they are just pure chemicals, with no quality control and with the real potential to be toxic," he explained.

"So there was a time when selling them, and probably the use of them, was perceived as non-harmful," Bisaga noted. "But hopefully now, with the bans that have been put in place and the release of this kind of data, we are catching up to reality."

Explore further: Drop in illicit drug use in cities, uptick in prescription drug abuse

More information: For more on synthetic marijuana, visit the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

More Information

Related Stories

Drop in illicit drug use in cities, uptick in prescription drug abuse

October 15, 2012
(HealthDay)—Illicit drug use has declined in most large U.S. cities in recent years, but prescription drug abuse has increased, a new study shows.

Gout is primary indication in about 0.2 percent of ER visits

September 18, 2012
(HealthDay)—Gout is the primary indication in about 0.2 percent of emergency department visits annually, according to a study published online Sept. 4 in Arthritis Care & Research.

First Nations and low-income children visit emergency departments more often for mental health care

June 11, 2012
First Nations children and those from families receiving government subsidies had more return visits to emergency departments for mental health crises than other socioeconomic groups, found a study published in CMAJ (Canadian ...

Marijuana use may cause severe cyclic nausea, vomiting, a little-known, but costly effect

October 22, 2012
Marijuana use—both natural and synthetic—may cause cannabinoid hyperemesis (CH) a little-known but costly effect that researchers suggest is a serious burden to the health care system as it often leads to expensive diagnostic ...

Pediatric emergency department visits for psychiatric care on the rise

October 14, 2011
Pediatric patients, primarily those who are underinsured (either without insurance or receiving Medicaid), are increasingly receiving psychiatric care in hospital emergency departments (EDs), according to an abstract presented ...

Recommended for you

Concern with potential rise in super-potent cannabis concentrates

July 21, 2017
University of Queensland researchers are concerned the recent legalisation of medicinal cannabis in Australia may give rise to super-potent cannabis concentrates with associated harmful effects.

Findings link aldosterone with alcohol use disorder

July 18, 2017
A new study led by scientists at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the National Institutes of Health, demonstrates that aldosterone, a hormone produced in the adrenal glands, may contribute ...

Depression among young teens linked to cannabis use at 18

July 17, 2017
A study looking at the cumulative effects of depression in youth, found that young people with chronic or severe forms of depression were at elevated risk for developing a problem with cannabis in later adolescence.

Why does prenatal alcohol exposure increase the likelihood of addiction?

July 7, 2017
One of the many negative consequences when fetuses are exposed to alcohol in the womb is an increased risk for drug addiction later in life. Neuroscientists in the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions are ...

Researchers say U.S. policies on drugs and addiction could use a dose of neuroscience

June 23, 2017
Tens of thousands of Americans die from drug overdoses every year – around 50,000 in 2015 – and the number has been steadily climbing for at least the last decade and a half, according to the National Institute on Drug ...

Study provides further support for genetic factors underlying addictions

June 13, 2017
Impairment of a particular gene raises increases susceptibility to opioid addiction liability as well as vulnerability to binge eating according to a new study.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Roland
not rated yet Dec 05, 2012
This article is yet more pure propaganda. The term "synthetic pot" is slander of a natural product. Per this article: "you don't know what you're buying" with this stuff. It isn't regulated, precisely because it's banned. The best drug law ever passed was the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1907. It required honest labeling. People knew what they were taking. You see its effects today on some prescription drugs: "Warning: may be habit forming." Bans serve no purpose other than to make moralists feel superior. Legalize Cannabis, and problems described in the article simply disappear. ONDCP, stop LYING.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.