By the Blouin News Science & Health staff

Synthetic pot: America’s latest drug battle

by in Medicine.

Getty Images

Getty Images

The use of synthetic marijuana has reached epidemic levels in the United States, evidenced by the disturbing rise in the number of synthetic marijuana-related emergency room visits in 2015. This July, the New York Times published an in-depth article titled Spike Nation. It covered the public health crisis raging in Syracuse, New York because of the surge in the usage of synthetic marijuana. Though the term is a bit of a misnomer. “Synthetic marijuana”  is an umbrella label used to distinguish a variety of compounds that originate overseas, primarily from China, and are then sold in the United States. Most of the content of these substances is unknown to law enforcement, health care workers, or users. The result? Synthetic pot is wreaking havoc in communities across the country.

Spike, the name of the synthetic marijuana widely used in Syracuse, is inexpensive and it is legal. At around $2 a gram, it offers an almost irresistibly cheap high for local poor and homeless. (Around one-third of Syracuse’s residents live below the poverty line.) Unfortunately, it does not come without cost, as emergency rooms and jails flood with users arrested for violent episodes or suffering serious ailments from use. This has placed enormous pressure on the city’s already taxed health system. Syracuse’s story is playing out in other U.S. cities, from a common origin in undisclosed factories in China.

The compounds in synthetic marijuana were originally developed to be sold as legal replacements for marijuana, but the ones being sold now differ dramatically from the cannaboids found in the marijuana plant — meaning, the effects are massively different. The majority of the drugs are manufactured in largely unregulated Chinese laboratories. This lack of quality control means that along with the mystery of the drugs’ contents, there is also no way to be sure of how or where they are made and what kinds of contaminates the products may contain. The chemicals are sent to the United States where they are applied, usually via spray bottle, to various types of dried plant material. While the product resembles marijuana and is ingested in similar fashion, these drugs are most definitely not marijuana. The dried plant material used in the products is also unregulated. Effects from use can include seizure, acute psychosis, stroke, hallucinations, heart attack, kidney failure, respiratory failure and self-inflicted injuries.

Users are predominately the poor, homeless and/or teenagers looking for a cheap, legal high, but many are unaware of the danger. These substances do not show up on drug screening tests, which make them even more enticing to individuals on probation or for some homeless who may be prohibited from using drugs and alcohol in order to receive housing in shelters. Through August 11, 2015, the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 5,220 case of human exposure to synthetic marijuana. That is 1,358 more cases than the 3,862 cases reported in the entire year of 2014.

For law enforcement agencies and health care professionals, the challenge is a daunting one. While many of the substances are banned federally and on the state level, those bans are limited to specific compounds. Therein lies the problem: Shortly after a substance is banned, buyers simply order a new substance with a slightly altered chemical composition that is not yet prohibited. Manufacturers further subvert the legal system by placing a “not for human consumption” warning on the packaging or selling it as potpourri.  Local law enforcement can confiscate a packet of synthetic marijuana from a person found in possession, and an individual selling the product can be written a minor ticket. But because the substances are technically legal, that person cannot be jailed.

The synthetic marijuana crisis in Syracuse is a cautionary tale of what is likely to happen in other cities if something is not done to combat the production and sale of these dangerous products. Like many other drugs, they disproportionately affect populations around and below the poverty line, those who have pre-existing mental health issues, and adolescents. In the past, law enforcement attempts to lock up all parties involved in the drug trade had made little differentiation between individuals who are a threat to public safety and those who would be better served with treatment, as opposed to incarceration. Hopefully, this phase will be different — or we may have to brace for America’s next big drug epidemic.