Legal Cannabis Reduces Synthetic Cannabinoid Poisonings, New Study Finds

A recent study has found a 37% decrease in poisoning reports for illicit synthetic cannabinoid use in US states where recreational cannabis use is legal, as opposed to states where recreational use is restricted. 

According to authors of the study, these findings highlight a potential benefit to legalising cannabis for public health because safer cannabis products would be more accessible to people who would otherwise choose to consume synthetic cannabinoids. 

Poison Control Centers across the US receive ungodly amounts of calls due to synthetic cannabinoid-related emergencies every year. 

With street names such as Spice, K2, Ak-47, and Mr. Nice Guy – if consumed, these synthetic cannabinoids can have disastrous effects on your health, the most common being seizures, confusion, and psychosis. 

New study

Researchers of the study, which was published in the Journal of Clinical Toxicology, analysed the National Poison Data System from 2016 to 2019, just before the Covid pandemic hit. 

Their sole focus was to analyse the states which had relatively stable cannabis policies during that timeframe, and then place them into three categories. 

For example; Washington is a permissive state that allows both medical and recreational adult cannabis use. Hawaii is only for the use of medical purposes. And Idaho, where all use of cannabis is pretty much prohibited. 

7,600 calls to report poisonings due to synthetic cannabinoids were used in this data sample. 65% of the calls required medical attention, and more shockingly, 61 deaths were reported. 

The study found that synthetic cannabinoid-related poisoning reports decreased overall during this time, but a much more significant decrease of 37% was found in permissive states, as opposed to only 13% in medical-only states. 

Tracy Klein, lead author and WSU associate professor of nursing, said:  

“This study shows some potential public health benefits to the legalisation and regulation of adult use of cannabis.

“Based on both past research and this current study, it’s evident that users who have a choice to use a less toxic product would potentially do so.” 

What are synthetic cannabinoids? 

Although synthetic cannabinoids may have a lot of similarities to cannabis-derived cannabinoids, they are not the same!

They share this name because they are modelled on natural cannabinoids and interact with the same receptors in the brain as THC, notably the CB1 receptor. 

Synthetics may be sprayed onto plants and smoked, or mixed into a liquid and vaped, while others may add it to their food or herbal teas. 

Some synthetic cannabinoids have been manufactured for medical use, such as dronabinol and nabilone, for example, mainly to ease nausea symptoms brought on by cancer treatment. 

Apart from these, synthetic cannabinoids are illegal in every state across America and serve no medical purpose. 

And since most are illegal and unregulated, there is no clear way to know which cannabinoids or other harmful chemicals may be included in purchased products. 

For example, four people from Illinois died, and over 150 more were taken ill after consuming rat-poison-infused synthetic cannabinoids in 2018. 

“100 times more potent than natural cannabis” 

Lead author of the study, Dr. Tracy Klein said:  “Synthetic products, they go under the radar, but they are very dangerous, and they’re very toxic. 

“From the UN’s Early Warning Advisory on new psychoactive substances, this class (of drug) is the second largest class. 

“There are many, many different formulations. This is, internationally, even a bigger problem right now than synthetic opioids. And I think that’s an important message.” She continued. 

The illicit synthetics bind with your cannabinoid receptors, the same way as THC, but are 100 times more powerful than your average dose of THC and have no medicinal properties. 

“THC content has gone up and up and CBD content has gone down in our legal recreational markets. But these synthetics are 100 times more potent than your average natural cannabis, for lack of a better word,” Dr. Klein says. 

She continues: “These are really bad drugs, they have no medical use. There is nothing that you would take them for that would have any kind of benefit, and that is really different to a medical cannabis preparation.” 

Ever-changing formula

Enforcement is also a difficult task due to vendors regularly changing their toxic formulas.  

And they usually go undetected during urine tests – which could appeal to buyers in both restricted and unrestricted states. 

Dr. Klein also commented on this: “You can’t easily test for illicit cannabinoids. A lot of times, we only find out if a patient has been using them because they’re hospitalised or because they’re dead.” 

In short, exposing yourself to these chemicals can be truly detrimental to your health.  

If you consume synthetic cannabinoids, you may well experience some of these symptoms: 

  • Irritability and agitation 
  • Confusion 
  • Seizures 
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Chest pain 
  • Accelerated heartbeat 
  • Heart attack 
  • Kidney failure 
  • Death 

Finally, there is no specific treatment for medical emergencies caused by synthetic cannabinoids, but doctors will assist patients with supplemental oxygen, fluids through a drip, and other medications to help with symptoms. 

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