What Are Synthetic Cannabinoids, And Why Are They Killing People Right Now?

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Synthetic marijuana was a deadly scourge even before the current outbreak of rat poison-laced product.

Synthetic marijuana — also called synthetic cannabinoids, K2, Spice, “fake weed” or “legal pot” — claimed a third life in Illinois this week as the number of victims experiencing “severe bleeding” from their eyes and ears hit triple digits and spread to four other states.

A man in his 40s was confirmed dead by Illinois Department of Public Health which warned people against using any synthetic cannabinoids, and to throw out any that had been purchased in the last month. Reported symptoms included “coughing up blood, blood in the urine, severe bloody nose, bleeding gums, and/or internal bleeding.”

Some victims have tested positive for brodifacoum, a lethal anticoagulant found in rat poison. Severe bleeding linked to rat poison-laced synthetic marijuana use has also been reported in Wisconsin, Maryland, Indiana and Missouri.

“Each day we’ve seen the number of cases rise,” said IDPH director Nirav D. Shah in a statement. “Synthetic cannabinoids are unsafe. They are not regulated and people don’t know what chemicals may be in them, like rat poison. While efforts are underway to get the contaminated drugs out of circulation, it’s possible they could re-emerge. We urge people not to use synthetic cannabinoids now or ever.”

3321144 1280x720(NYPD shows synthetic marijuana seized in Brooklyn in 2015. Photo: New York Police Department)

What is “synthetic marijuana” exactly?

Chemist John W. Huffman initially developed synthetic cannabinoids in the 1990s as part of his research into cannabinoid receptors. Ironically, it was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.By 2008, underground drug manufacturers were replicating his work on synthetic cannabinoids and selling it under the name Spice.

After Huffman unwittingly opened what he calls “Pandora’s box,” it turned into a multibillion-dollar industry produced largely in Chinese labs with the intention of getting around North American anti-marijuana laws, reported the Washington Post. (That’s also why they’re often called potpourri or incense and labelled “not for human consumption.”)

These designer drugs are human-made chemicals intended to mimic the effects of the effects of natural cannabinoids like THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive compound that makes people feel “high.”

Synthetic cannabinoids are either sprayed onto dried and shredded plants to be smoked, or mixed with e-juice for vaping. They’re sold as “legal” alternatives at head shops, gas stations and online. While their chemical compositions are regularly altered slightly to stay ahead of legislation, they’re built to bind even better than THC to the brain’s cannabinoid receptors.

But health officials warn that the side effects from synthetic cannabinoids are different from plant-derived ones. One 2016 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found a synthetic cannabinoid that was 85 times more potent as THC. According to the Centre for Disease Control, smoking synthetic cannabinoids can cause “rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion and hallucinations.” They have also been linked to seizures, blackouts, heart attacks, kidney failure, psychosis and suicide. There’s also the growing global problem of addiction to synthetics that outlets like Vice have reported on.

101214-F-3431H-903(U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth)

CNN reports that even before the current problems, fake weed with no rat poison has caused a number of other dangerous outbreaks: there were 102 overdoses in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania over three days in 2017 and 33 people in Brooklyn, New York fell ill in 2016. The CDC reported “synthetic cannabinoid intoxication” spiked between 2010 and 2015, while the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported calls involving synthetic cannabinoids rose from 112 in 2009 to 6,549 in 2011.

Synthetic cannabinoids in Canada

There have been no reports of rat poison-laced synthetic pot in Canada but authorities here have regularly cracked down on its sales. In 2013, Windsor, Halton, Niagara police tried to get it off store shelves while Health Canada put out a warning about “risks related to synthetic marihuana products” and noted that “it is illegal if they contain ingredients that are similar synthetic preparations of cannabis, which are regulated under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA).”

One manufacturer, IZMS CEO Adam Wookey, told CBC at the time that “the claim that it’s legal is based on its ingredients. The active ingredients are synthetic cannabinoids that have no similar structure to THC. Because of that, they are not considered to be similar synthetic preparation and, therefore, not illegal.”

In 2016, Health Canada reported that use of synthetic cannabinoids jumped from 1 to 4 per cent year-over-year, and was the third most-used drug used by high schoolers, after alcohol and pot. They also put out another warning last summer about “an unauthorized product called Brainfreeze Potpourri or Brainfreeze Herbal Incense that is labeled as an herbal product and contains synthetic cannabinoids.” It was being sold in Edmonton and had caused at least one “serious adverse reaction.”

Notably, the outbreak in the U.S. has not been reported in states that have legalized marijuana. That’s because the presence of law-skirting drugs such as these, and the avoidable deaths that they cause, are largely a result of prohibition. These casualties used to happen regularly during alcohol prohibition, too, as many drinkers suffered alcohol poisoning from unregulated and unsafe moonshine.

Hopefully, the forward march of cannabis legalization will have a side-effect of saving lives by reducing the use of dangerous and potentially deadly synthetic cannabinoids.

 

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