Linking Psychosis to Synthetic Cannabis

Posted on March 28th, 2011
Posted in Marijuana

There is widespread debate about the medical use of cannabis for treating chronic pain in some patients. While advocates believe that the uses of cannabis are significant for those suffering, there have been some concerns about the side effects associated with the drug. For instance, previous research has linked cannabis use with psychotic episodes, in some instances the psychosis becoming an ongoing problem.

Now a set of case studies has shown that there may also be a connection between synthetic cannabis and psychosis. While its use is largely as a street drug, the effects sought are similar to those occurring in natural cannabis. Synthetic cannabis is created by coating plant material with a combination of chemicals designed to mimic the effects of natural cannabis. The compounds are not, regulated, approved or examined by the FDA.

When a person is admitted to the hospital for a problem related to synthetic cannabis, the nature of the drug can create challenges in treatment. Because there are many variations of synthetic cannabis compounds available on the street, emergency department staff may not know the specific chemicals that are causing the patient’s reaction. On the street, synthetic cannabis is commonly known as “Spice,” “K2,” “Blaze,” and “Red X Dawn.”

Researchers at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego examined the outcomes of ten patients hospitalized for psychosis related to the use of synthetic cannabis. The ten patients ranged in age from 21 to 25 and all experienced symptoms of psychosis after using synthetic cannabis. Some of the patients experienced ongoing psychotic symptoms. The symptoms included auditory and visual hallucinations, paranoid delusions, odd or flat affect, thought blocking, disorganized speech, thoughts of suicide, insomnia, slowed reaction times, agitation and anxiety.

The length of time that the psychotic episode lasts varied widely between the ten patients. The symptoms generally were resolved between five and eight days after hospitalization for most of the patients, but some of the cases involved psychotic symptoms that lasted for three months or more.

The study provides the first evidence that shows a connection between psychosis and synthetic cannabis, similar to results found for natural cannabis and psychotic episodes. Further research is needed to determine which chemicals cause different types of psychotic experiences in users of unregulated synthetic cannabis.

The research by the Naval Medical Center was presented on May 14 at the American Psychiatric Association’s Annual Meeting in Honolulu.

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