Teens who use synthetic cannabis face elevated risks of serious health consequences like coma and seizures, according to a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics.
The study, which examined emergency room data from 2010-2018, found that teens who used synthetic substances such as K2 or Spice (often called “fake cannabis”) were three times more likely to experience severe side effects than those who used organic cannabis. According to the study’s authors, “The developing brain is particularly vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of CB1 (cannabinoid 1) overactivation by [synthetic cannabis], leading to aberrations in the neurotransmitters modulating the seizure threshold.”
Researchers collected data from 65 hospitals in 23 states, with subjects including teens who used only synthetic cannabis, teens who used only organic cannabis, and those who combined one or more of these substances with other drugs. Their investigation yielded a number of sobering insights, including the fact that 28.5 percent of synthetic cannabis-only users suffered comas and depression of the central nervous system, compared with only 10.5 percent of those who only used organic cannabis. Combining synthetic cannabis with other drugs also put users at higher risk of negative side effects, with 29 percent of users experiencing seizures, as opposed to only 8 percent of users who mixed organic cannabis with other drugs.
According to the study’s authors, the findings illustrate “a distinct neuropsychiatric profile of acute [synthetic cannabis] toxicity in adolescents.” In other words — synthetic cannabis poses major dangers to teens.
Synthetic cannabis has been a major health concern in both the United States and Canada for years. Although health and law enforcement authorities have outlawed numerous forms of the drug, rogue chemists are constantly devising new formulations to evade these bans. Often sold as “incense” or similar products, synthetic cannabis has been relatively easy to acquire even in states where cannabis is illegal. In 2012, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that 11 percent of high school seniors in the United States had used synthetic cannabis in the last year.
While that number seems to have decreased lately — a 2017 study in Pediatrics found that only 3 percent of high school seniors were using synthetic cannabis, though the ones who did seemed to be using it more frequently, with nearly half of users saying they’d tried it three or more times in the previous month — the potency of synthetic cannabis (it can be up to 100 times stronger than the organic variety) and the possibility of severe side effects has still alarmed public health experts.
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state on their website, “The health effects from using synthetic cannabinoids can be unpredictable and harmful — even life threatening.” And according to Dr. Joanna Cohen, a pediatric emergency physician at the Children’s National Medical Center and the co-author of a study examining the impact of synthetic cannabis on teens’ brains, the shadowy nature of synthetic cannabis means that every batch can yield new problems, which are much more severe than the side effects of organic cannabis.
“These drugs are unregulated. Symptoms can be unpredictable because the drug is mixed with other types of chemicals and substances,” she told Live Science.
For pediatricians, the swiftly-evolving nature of synthetic cannabis makes it challenging to identify warning signs and treat teens who suffer from its effects. As a 2016 paper in the World Journal of Clinical Pediatrics stated, “Newer, more potent analogues have been developed. Identifying youth who abuse these substances can be difficult … with toxicological confirmation difficult due to manufacturers constantly developing new analogues to avoid detection.”
For now, the best hope for combating the threat posed to teens’ health by synthetic cannabis seems to be a slow and unsatisfying one: waiting for it to go out of style.