Dramatic Spike In Synthetic Marijuana Deaths Sparks A Public Health Emergency

CREDIT: AP Photo/Dale Wetzel

Years after states banned its use, health officials across the United States are mulling over how to best combat the surge in hospitalizations, calls to poison control centers, and deaths from brands of what consumers describe as “synthetic marijuana.”

In the month of April, more than 1,000 people reported sicknesses from the substance — more than double the cases that the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported between January and March of this year. The cases, which have quadrupled compared to 2014, often involve synthetic marijuana that’s been mixed with other substances.

Health departments in Alabama, Mississippi, and New York recently issued warnings amid increases in hospital admissions from synthetic marijuana users experiencing psychotic episodes, seizures, severe anxiety, muscle spasms, and suicidal thoughts. Similar cases have occurred in Arizona, Florida, New Jersey and Texas. Health officials in Mississippi reported more than 400 hospital room visits this month. In Louisiana, one synthetic marijuana user has died and two others are currently in intensive care.

“We had one hospital in the Baton Rouge area that saw over 110 cases in February. That’s a huge spike,” Dr. Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center, told the New York Times. “There’s a large amount of use going on. When one of these new ingredients — something that’s more potent and gives a bigger high — is released and gets into distribution, it can cause these more extreme effects.”

The chemical components of synthetic marijuana, which has been on the market since 2008, mimic the effects of marijuana when sprayed onto an herbal base material. Officials believe the most popular brands, including K2 and Spice, originate from a Chinese manufacturer. In the early days of its sale, health officials warned against its use, with many lambasting companies that marketed their products as a form of marijuana. Lab analyses in 2008 dispelled this notion, showing instead that the product contained synthetic cannabinoids that don’t fall under the classification that makes marijuana illegal.

After 2011, use of synthetic marijuana decreased amid a push among public health officials to warn consumers. However, the drug still maintained a following among young adults, with one in 20 high school students using the drugs in 2014 and one in 30 people between the ages of 19 and 28 using them in 2013. Even with the addition of drugs commonly found in synthetic marijuana products to the Controlled Substances Act, law enforcement agencies have struggled to curb its distribution throughout the country. The well hasn’t run dry as of yet, despite nearly 40 arrests and seizures of more than 400 pounds of synthetic marijuana.

Producers of synthetic marijuana have also evaded the Food and Drug Administration, particularly after the regulatory agency used its emergency powers to ban five ingredients that it deemed as “an imminent threat to public health.” Since then, they have altered the chemical composition of synthetic marijuana brands so that they bypass regulations and detection in urine tests. Producers have also marketed their packages as incense with “not for human consumption” labels, making the FDA’s job more difficult.

“Young people are being harmed when they smoke these dangerous ‘fake pot’ products and wrongly equate the products’ ‘legal’ retail availability with being ‘safe,'” DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart told Gothamist in 2011 shortly after the FDA ban.

Health officials said they cannot tell if the surge this month happened because of a greater use of the drug or if a lethal combination of chemicals deserves the blame. However, Andrew Hazzard of The Dispatch Newspaper argues that marijuana’s classification as a Schedule 1 substance — despite the lack of recorded overdose deaths — has compelled people, many of whom have to submit drug tests for employment, to experiment with the synthetic drug to get the same high they enjoy with cannabis.

In his recent piece, Hazzard said that the current synthetic weed conundrum and marijuana’s increasing popularity should be reason enough to legalize the plant. “People are going to take substances that alter their state of mind. And the war on drugs has done little to stop it,” Hazzard wrote. “The war on drugs has created drug testing. And drug testing has led to the production of alternative designer drugs such as spice, which is increasingly leading to death. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate why we test for illegal drugs, and what the consequences are.”