Synthetic Marijuana Abuse Rising in the U.S.

Calls to poison control centers for synthetic marijuana exposure reached an all-time high in 2015, more than doubling the total number of cases from 2014, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

The AAPCC first began collecting data on synthetic marijuana (K2, Spice) exposure in 2009. The number of cases peaked at 6,982 in 2011 before dropping in subsequent years. After numbers began trending upward again in 2014, poison control centers received a record 7,779 calls in 2015.

Calls to poison control centers for synthetic marijuana exposure reached an all-time high in 2015, more than doubling the total number of cases from 2014, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

The AAPCC first began collecting data on synthetic marijuana (K2, Spice) exposure in 2009. The number of cases peaked at 6,982 in 2011 before dropping in subsequent years. After numbers began trending upward again in 2014, poison control centers received a record 7,779 calls in 2015.

2015 Synthetic Marijuana Cases by Month
January 358
February 273
March 270
April 1,512
May 1,205
June 656
July 741
August 720
September 627
October 611
November 448
December 358

Synthetic marijuana is a mix of chemicals sprayed on plants like grass or tea leaves and disguised as herbs or incense. Drug users smoke the substance to get high, which sometimes results in adverse side effects like paranoia, seizures and psychosis.

The state of New York led the U.S. with 1,729 reported exposures to the drug last year, followed by 1,362 cases in Mississippi and 673 cases in Texas.

New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has described the drug as “weaponized marijuana.” The city banned the substance, as well as synthetic stimulants like bath salts, in October.

“These individuals, many of them under the influence of this drug, are totally crazy,” Bratton said at a 2015 press conference. “It looks like marijuana, but it’s laced with chemicals and as fast as we are able to identify the chemicals and get that particular chemical, make it against the law, they change the make up of it. So it’s synthetic, and it’s incredibly dangerous and harmful.”

Some experts believe legal efforts to keep the drug out of stores have forced drugmakers to start selling synthetic marijuana on the street, leading to a new demographic of users.

Legal Status Forces Drug to the Street

Convenience stores and other mom-and-pop retailers began selling synthetic marijuana over the counter in the early 2000s because none of the chemicals used in the drug were illegal at the time. They also avoided U.S. Food and Drug Enforcement regulation because they were sold under the disguise of incense or similar products.

Federal and state governments began outlawing many of the chemicals used in the drugs after 2010, deterring the drug’s primary demographic – teenagers and college-age males. Now, the drug is gaining popularity with urban, impoverished and homeless populations, according to a PBC report.

“We originally felt that [synthetic marijuana] was being marketed for younger people, for teenagers,” Lt. Andrew Struhar of the Narcotics Unit of the Washington D.C. Police told PBS. “But it has definitely drilled down to the street, and unfortunately a great deal to the homeless population.”

The new demographic is making the drug difficult for law enforcement to control.

“The progression of the drug from when we started, being advertised in windows of gas stations and convenience stores to street sales, has definitely been a bad case scenario,” Struhar said. “Street sales are much more difficult to find, to locate and prosecute.”

Authorities Received Early Warnings in 2015

The National Poison Data System notified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about a drastic increase in calls related to synthetic marijuana in April 2015. Adverse events related to the drug increased 330 percent from January to April. The total of 3,752 calls was a 229 percent increase over the same time period in 2014.

Commonly reported adverse events included:

Agitation
1,262 cases
Rapid heartbeat
1,035 cases
Drowsiness
939 cases
Vomiting
585 cases
Confusion
506 cases

About 11 percent of calls were for life-threatening side effects, and 47.5 percent of calls required some form of treatment. The numbers were likely an underestimate of the true number of synthetic marijuana overdoses, because the poison control statistics don’t account for all people who are treated, according to the CDC.

Many experts say the drug is much more dangerous than marijuana, and their similar names are misleading. The effects of synthetic marijuana are more similar to PCP than cannabis and can easily lead to addiction.

“You get a lot more people who get that agitation, the psychosis, the paranoia, even convulsions,” Dr. Kama Tillman, a D.C. emergency room physician, told PBS. “They’re belligerent, they’re wild. Their bodies are just moving around where they can’t control it.”

Law enforcement is trying to keep the drugs out of people’s hands before they become hooked, but treatment is necessary for individuals who are trying to recover from addiction. Rehabilitation clinics are developing methods for helping people recover and return to normal lives.

January 358 February 273 March 270 April 1,512 May 1,205 June 656 July 741 August 720 September> 627 October 611 November 448 December 358

Synthetic marijuana is a mix of chemicals sprayed on plants like grass or tea leaves and disguised as herbs or incense. Drug users smoke the substance to get high, which sometimes results in adverse side effects like paranoia, seizures and psychosis.

The state of New York led the U.S. with 1,729 reported exposures to the drug last year, followed by 1,362 cases in Mississippi and 673 cases in Texas.

New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has described the drug as “weaponized marijuana.” The city banned the substance, as well as synthetic stimulants like bath salts, in October.

“These individuals, many of them under the influence of this drug, are totally crazy,” Bratton said at a 2015 press conference. “It looks like marijuana, but it’s laced with chemicals and as fast as we are able to identify the chemicals and get that particular chemical, make it against the law, they change the make up of it. So it’s synthetic, and it’s incredibly dangerous and harmful.”

Some experts believe legal efforts to keep the drug out of stores have forced drugmakers to start selling synthetic marijuana on the street, leading to a new demographic of users.

Legal Status Forces Drug to the Street

Convenience stores and other mom-and-pop retailers began selling synthetic marijuana over the counter in the early 2000s because none of the chemicals used in the drug were illegal at the time. They also avoided U.S. Food and Drug Enforcement regulation because they were sold under the disguise of incense or similar products.

Federal and state governments began outlawing many of the chemicals used in the drugs after 2010, deterring the drug’s primary demographic – teenagers and college-age males. Now, the drug is gaining popularity with urban, impoverished and homeless populations, according to a PBC report.

“We originally felt that [synthetic marijuana] was being marketed for younger people, for teenagers,” Lt. Andrew Struhar of the Narcotics Unit of the Washington D.C. Police told PBS. “But it has definitely drilled down to the street, and unfortunately a great deal to the homeless population.”

The new demographic is making the drug difficult for law enforcement to control.

“The progression of the drug from when we started, being advertised in windows of gas stations and convenience stores to street sales, has definitely been a bad case scenario,” Struhar said. “Street sales are much more difficult to find, to locate and prosecute.”

Authorities Received Early Warnings in 2015

The National Poison Data System notified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about a drastic increase in calls related to synthetic marijuana in April 2015. Adverse events related to the drug increased 330 percent from January to April. The total of 3,752 calls was a 229 percent increase over the same time period in 2014.

Commonly reported adverse events included:

Agitation
1,262 cases
Rapid heartbeat
1,035 cases
Drowsiness
939 cases
Vomiting
585 cases
Confusion
506 cases

About 11 percent of calls were for life-threatening side effects, and 47.5 percent of calls required some form of treatment. The numbers were likely an underestimate of the true number of synthetic marijuana overdoses, because the poison control statistics don’t account for all people who are treated, according to the CDC.

Many experts say the drug is much more dangerous than marijuana, and their similar names are misleading. The effects of synthetic marijuana are more similar to PCP than cannabis and can easily lead to addiction.

“You get a lot more people who get that agitation, the psychosis, the paranoia, even convulsions,” Dr. Kama Tillman, a D.C. emergency room physician, told PBS. “They’re belligerent, they’re wild. Their bodies are just moving around where they can’t control it.”

Law enforcement is trying to keep the drugs out of people’s hands before they become hooked, but treatment is necessary for individuals who are trying to recover from addiction. Rehabilitation clinics are developing methods for helping people recover and return to normal lives.

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