The increasing use of synthetic marijuana by teens and young adults in the U.S. is driving a spike in drug-related emergency rooms visits, according to a new report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It’s a situation that health officials say needs to be addressed before it does substantial damage to the health and well-being of today’s youth.
Researchers say 75 percent of the 11,406 emergency room visits related to synthetic cannabis in 2010 involved young people between the ages of 12 to 29. Males accounted for 78% of the admissions in that age group.
“This report confirms that synthetic drugs cause substantial damage to public health and safety in America,” said Gil Kerlikowske, Office of National Drug Control Policy Director. “Make no mistake, the use of synthetic cannabinoids can cause serious, lasting damage, particularly in young people. Parents have a responsibility to learn what these drugs can do and to educate their families about the negative impact they cause.”
Synthetic cannabinoids are designed to affect the body in a manner similar to marijuana but are not derived from the marijuana plant. They are typically sprayed onto herbal products, and marketed by a variety of names, including “Spice” and “K2”.
The use of synthetic cannabinoids has been linked to a variety of symptoms including agitation, nausea, vomiting, rapid heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, tremor, seizures, hallucinations, paranoid behavior and non-responsiveness.
Sold as “legal” alternative to marijuana, they were readily available in most states until July of this year, when the federal government enacted a comprehensive ban. Because they contain different ingredients from each other, health officials say it is difficult to identify which physical effects are caused by synthetic cannabinoids.
“These products are relatively new, and related clinical and public health outcomes have not been fully examined,” the report noted. “Synthetic cannabinoids are not currently identified using routine screening tests, and the creation of new products of this type makes it difficult to detect these chemicals or regulate these products.”
Another cause for concern the study found was the easy access to synthetic marijuana. Despite now being illegal, it is still available online, making it difficult to regulate and possibly more accessible to kids than marijuana.
In fact, the average age for people involved in synthetic cannabinoid-related ER admissions was younger than for marijuana-related visits — 24 years old versus 30 years old. And synthetic cannabinoids were more likely to be the only drug implicated in the visit, whereas marijuana was more frequently combined with other drugs.
“Health care professionals should be alerted to the potential dangers of synthetic cannabinoids, and they should be aware that their patients may be using these substances,” said SAMHSA Administrator Pamela Hyde. “Parents, teachers, coaches and other concerned adults can make a huge impact by talking to young people, especially older adolescents and young adults, about the potential risks associated with using synthetic marijuana.”
The report is based on data drawn from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Drug Abuse Warning Network, a public health surveillance system that monitors drug-related morbidity and mortality.