Synthetic Marijuana Is a Legal Drug With a Growing Trail of Overdoses and No Studies—Until Now

Synthetic marijuana packets. New York State Department of Health

Synthetic marijuana is less well known than its natural counterpart, but it exists, is legal, and is increasingly popular. It also carries risks: In July, more than 100 people in the same Pennsylvania town overdosed in a span of just three days (none were fatal). Newark, New Jersey, had more than 70 overdoses in April, and another 40 in August. Most recently, more than 120 people in Hennepin County, Minnesota, overdosed on synthetic marijuana within two months.

And not a single study has been done on the dangers of synthetic marijuana. Until now.

A collaboration between seven researchers from universities in the Netherlands and Germany administered doses of a serum derived from JWH-018, a type of synthetic marijuana, to participants and observed the effects. Although no serious side effects were reported, they found that even a low dose (2 mg) impaired the users' behavior. A paper describing the study was published today in the British Journal of Pharmacology.

The researchers also observed that the "high" users reported seemed similar to the one obtained through traditional marijuana. Users and bystanders often report the synthetic version as more incapacitating, even rendering people "zombielike." The rise in overdoses across the country from users who didn't know what they were in for would seem to support this.

Marijuana Overdoses

Synthetic marijuana produces a high resembling that of natural marijuana. Like with natural weed, overdoses of synthetic marijuana haven't been fatal—but they are on the rise all across the country. Symptoms reported during the Hennepin County surge included anxiety, paranoia, psychosis, and loss of consciousness. Anecdotal evidence from overdoses often includes warnings that the synthetic marijuana led to more debilitating or unexpected effects among users who were expecting a familiar sensation.

JWH-018, the compound studied in the new research, produces an effect similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the compound responsible for the high from natural marijuana. But because it doesn't actually contain any THC, JWH-018 is not subject to the laws that restrict sales of real marijuana. So it often ends up being sold under labels like "herbal-incense blend" at head shops alongside other legal marijuana paraphernalia.

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Synthetic marijuana, or "Spice." Wikipedia

Other names for synthetic marijuana include Spice, K2, Yucatan Fire, Skunk, or Moon Rocks. All of these may be more easily accessible than natural marijuana because they're legal. "Spice products were among the first herbal blends that were freely advertised over the internet," the researchers wrote in the new paper. "Spice products have become very popular in several countries due to its easy access and portrayed safety, but also due to the fact that they are not detectable in standard drug tests."

The combination of all those factors makes Spice and other synthetic blends appealing alternatives to natural marijuana. They're becoming a larger presence in the recreational drug market, including within the United States. Yet there's been almost no peer-reviewed research on these drugs, which makes using them riskier. There's no way to educate people on the effects of a drug if even the scientists don't know what they are.

This study marks the first step in addressing that. To further assess the risk factors and see whether the effects diverge from those of natural marijuana, the next step will need to be graduating to a higher-dose serum.