Ask the pharmacist: Synthetic marijuana

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HARTFORD – Synthetic Marijuana use in high school and college students has fluctuated between 8% and 11% over the past several years with poison control centers nationwide reported between 260 to 359 cases of illness or injury per month.  In April, the number of cases skyrocketed to over 1,500 according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers and in May the outbreak has spread to Connecticut with nearly a dozen were sickened by a drug believed to be synthetic marijuana two weeks ago and another student late last week.

What is synthetic marijuana and how does it differ from regular marijuana?

When most people think of the effects that marijuana can cause, the anxiety reducing, relaxing, and slightly hallucinogenic effects, those effects are due to a chemical called THC. Differing species of marijuana produce different concentrations of THC and some species used for medicinal purposes that have virtually no THC.  Synthetic marijuana, which is also known as Spice or K2, starts with generic plant matter that sprayed with synthetic chemicals that mimic THC.  There are many synthetic THCs available and much of the manufacture occurs overseas in Asia and in some cases, other illegal substances are sprayed on the plant material as well to boost their effects, such as LSD.  The newest synthetic version is called MAB-CHMINACA and recently hit the market in late March.  In other states they have determined that this is the version responsible for most of the illnesses although results have not yet come back here in Connecticut.  This new strain is more likely to cause severe hallucinations, elevated body temperature and blood pressure, and seizures but whether this is inherently a more dangerous synthetic compound or the concentration added to the material was too high is not known.

Why would someone use synthetic over regular marijuana?

By continuing to develop and use new chemical versions of THC, the government cannot make the newest versions illegal to possess.  The new chemical versions do not show up in standard laboratory drug tests so it is hard to detect usage.  However, to get these legal benefits, there are additional risks to have to take.  By having to create newer chemical versions of THC to avoid detection and prosecution, they occasionally stumble upon strains that are more dangerous. Since the synthetic marijuana is being made secretly, they do not have to adhere to quality manufacturing practices and can grow the plant matter on brownfields so some of the products have been shown to contain heavy metals and other carcinogens.  The dose of the THC analogue you receive might be different from batch to batch so you think that one packet is safe but then yoou get one with twice the concentration and end up running naked down the street breaking car window, which you can by arrested for.  Finally, if they are running low on synthetic THC and still have orders to fill, they may add other readily available illegal drugs to the mix to meet the demand and the risk then goes up markedly.

Dr. Michael White, Dept. of Pharmacy Practice, UConn School of Pharmacy