She’s the lead author of a study that found calls to poison centers about synthetic cannabinoid fell by more than a third between 2016 and 2019 in states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use.
“These products are made in a powdered format and could be sprayed on or added to something that looks exactly like natural cannabis. So, in a party situation, I could see that someone could use this unintentionally,” said Klein, who is also an associate professor in the WSU College of Nursing.
A deadly problem
There’s no way to know which synthetic cannabinoids are actually in the purchased product or what else might be in the solvents used to soak the dried plants, experts say.
Officially known as “synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists,” these artificial products are different from synthetically made cannabis products that have a medical use, Klein said.
“They don’t show up on regular drug tests,” she said, “nor does the body recognize them in any way that has positive effects.”
Over half of those calls (56%) occurred in states with restrictive cannabis policies, the study found. Closer to a third (38.6%) occurred in states that allow medicinal use and 5.5% occurred in “permissive” states, where recreational use is legal, according to the study.
How synthetic cannabinoids work
“One particular synthetic cannabis was designed by a pharmaceutical company as a potential drug to ease pain,” Klein said. “It was found to be so strong and so powerful, and have so many side effects, that it was not pursued.”
Today synthetics are mostly produced overseas and shipped to the United States. In fact, the first shipment “recognized to contain synthetic cannabinoids was seized at a U.S. border in 2008,” according to the CDC.
“And those are just the ones that have been reported and identified,” she added.
While not the same as weed, synthetics do work on the same cannabinoid receptors as THC, but can be up to 100 times more potent because of the way they bind with receptors in the brain, Klein said.
Psychiatric symptoms include “hallucinations, delusions, psychosis, violent behavior, and suicidal thoughts,” the agency said. “Other physical signs and symptoms, including tachypnea, tachycardia, hypertension, severe nausea and vomiting, chest pain and heart attack, rhabdomyolysis (breakdown of damaged muscle), kidney failure, and death.”
There is no antidote for synthetic cannabinoid poisoning and long-term effects are unknown, the CDC stated. Treatment is supportive, by using intravenous fluids, oxygen, and other airway protection and medications for agitation and combativeness.
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