Study identifies teens at-risk for synthetic marijuana use

March 2, 2015 by Christopher James, New York University
Study identifies teens at-risk for synthetic marijuana use
Synthetic marijuana confiscated from a Chicago Northwest Side warehouse was disguised as "Scooby Snax" gum, September 2012. Image Credit: WGN-TV

Synthetic cannabinoids ("synthetic marijuana"), with names like Spice, K2, Scooby Doo and hundreds of others, are often sold as a "legal" alternative to marijuana. Often perceived as a safe legal alternative to illicit drug use, synthetic marijuana use was associated with 11,561 reports of poisonings in the United States between January 2009 and April 2012.

Popular among teens, in 2011, was used by more than one out of ten (11.4%) seniors in the US, making it the most commonly used drug after real marijuana.

A new study by researchers affiliated with New York University's Center for Drug Use and HIV Research (CDUHR), is now online ahead of print in Drug and Alcohol Dependence and it is one of the first national studies to examine risk factors for use of synthetic marijuana among a large, nationally representative sample of teens.

"Use began to decrease last year, but the drug still poses a substantial threat, and research was needed to determine which teens are at highest risk for use," said Joseph J. Palamar, PhD, MPH, a CDUHR affiliated researcher and an assistant professor of Population Health at NYU Langone Medical Center (NYULMC).

The study, "Synthetic Cannabinoid Use in a Nationally Representative Sample of US High School Seniors," used data from Monitoring the Future (MTF), a nationwide ongoing annual study of the behaviors, attitudes, and values of American secondary school students. The MTF survey is administered in approximately 130 public and private schools throughout 48 states in the US. Roughly 15,000 high school seniors are assessed annually. This study examined data from 11,863 students who were asked a variety of questions to gauge their use of natural and synthetic marijuana from 2011 to 2013.

The researchers found that race and sex were significantly correlated with synthetic marijuana use. Compared to females, males were consistently at greater risk for synthetic marijuana use and more frequent use. Black students were 42% less likely to report synthetic marijuana use and 36% less likely to report more frequent use than white students.

"However, when we factor in other drug use, we find that identifying as a racial minority no longer remains a protective factor," explained Dr. Palamar. "The data also showed that students who go out four to seven nights per week for fun were at high risk for experimenting and for continuing use. More research is needed, but this may be due to increased exposure to others who use these products during these nightly activities."

The researchers also found that students who engaged in the use of other substances were more likely to use synthetic marijuana. Lifetime use of alcohol nearly doubled the odds for use. Cigarette smoking increased risk for synthetic marijuana use, particularly regular smoking either in the past or in the present, both of which more than doubled the likelihood of use. Reporting lifetime use of any other than natural marijuana more than doubled the odds for use.

Most importantly, frequency of lifetime marijuana use was the strongest correlate, with more frequent use further increasing odds of synthetic marijuana use.

"Our main finding was that very few never-users of natural marijuana have ever tried synthetic marijuana," said Dr. Palamar. "Only 0.5% of non-marijuana users reported use. Although we were unable to determine whether use of natural marijuana tended to occur before synthetic marijuana, results do suggest that it is mainly marijuana users who are at greatest risk for use."

Dr. Palamar posits that it is likely that many of these synthetic marijuana users resort to trying this "legal," but more dangerous version of marijuana in order to avoid possible arrest, detection on drug screenings, or the stigma associated with being an illicit drug user.

The results from this study can be used to inform national and local efforts to prevent use and adverse consequences resulting from use. According to the researchers, further investigation is needed to determine if synthetic marijuana serves as a gateway to natural marijuana and other illicit drugs. The researchers also mention that research is needed to determine whether are still turning to this more dangerous form of marijuana in states where recreational marijuana use is now legal for adults to use.

Explore further: Study suggests 33% of high school seniors support legalized marijuana

More information: "Synthetic cannabinoid use in a nationally representative sample of US high school seniors" DOI:

Related Stories

Study suggests 33% of high school seniors support legalized marijuana

February 5, 2015
New research from Journal of Psychoactive Drugs has found that 33 percent of High School Seniors support legalized marijuana and 25.6 percent believe marijuana should be considered a crime. As debate has swept the country—with ...

Evidence linking marijuana and risk of stroke grows

February 20, 2015
Smoking marijuana may increase your chances of having a stroke, according to a review of 34 different studies published in the American Heart Association's journal Stroke.

Research compares consequences of teen alcohol and marijuana use

September 2, 2014
Growing public support for marijuana legalization in the U.S. has led to public debate about whether marijuana is "safer" than other substances, such as alcohol. In January, President Obama also publicly stated he is not ...

Prevalence of high school seniors' marijuana use is expected to increase with legalization

February 25, 2014
National support for marijuana ("cannabis") legalization is increasing in the United States (US). Recreational use was recently legalized in the states of Colorado and Washington; other states across the country are expected ...

Survey: US teens using synthetic drugs less often

December 18, 2013
Fewer teens are trying fake marijuana known by such names as K2 and Spice, apparently getting the message that these cheap new drugs are highly dangerous, according to the government's annual survey on drug use.

Medical marijuana a challenge for legal pot states

January 2, 2015
A year into the nation's experiment with legal, taxed marijuana sales, Washington and Colorado find themselves wrestling not with the federal interference many feared, but with competition from medical marijuana or even outright ...

Recommended for you

Smoking cessation: A genetic mutation involved in relapse

October 4, 2018
Why is it so difficult to stop smoking? Why do some people relapse months after giving up? Scientists from the Institut Pasteur and the CNRS, in collaboration with Sorbonne University and Inserm, have demonstrated that a ...

Study shows cigarillo flavors enhanced by high-intensity sweeteners

October 3, 2018
In a new study, Yale researchers found that popular brands of cigarillos are flavored with high-intensity sweeteners, potentially reducing the aversive sensation of smoking and making cigarillos more palatable. The concern ...

Leading addiction experts call for more neuroscience research on long-term recovery

September 24, 2018
September is addiction recovery month, and, in the midst of the current opioid epidemic, it's an apt moment for addiction research experts to map the future path forward for a long-term recovery strategy for substance abuse. ...

The connection between alcoholism and depression

September 21, 2018
Alcoholism and depression often go hand-in-hand.

Quitting junk food produces similar withdrawal-type symptoms as drug addiction

September 20, 2018
If you plan to try and quit junk food, expect to suffer similar withdrawal-type symptoms—at least during the initial week—like addicts experience when they attempt to quit using drugs.

Low academic achievement can lead to drug abuse decades later, research finds

September 13, 2018
A Virginia Commonwealth University researcher has found that poor academic achievement can lead to substance abuse. Data collected from Swedish participants over a period of 15 to 20 years indicate a strong correlation.


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.