One in 10 High School Seniors Has Used Synthetic Marijuana
Synthetic marijuana is the most widespread euphemism for a group of manmade substances that produce mind alteration through the same brain pathways accessed by the THC found in actual marijuana and other cannabis products. In a study published in February 2015 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from two branches of New York University used data from a nationwide survey project called Monitoring the Future to determine how many high school seniors use synthetic marijuana. The researchers used data from the same project to identify the risk factors that contribute to use of the drug(s) in the target grade.
The substances now known as synthetic marijuana were originally developed in controlled laboratory conditions by scientists who wanted to know more about the ways in which the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) content in marijuana/cannabis enters the brain and produces its characteristic mind-altering effects. Since the chemical connections used by THC are known as cannabinoid receptors, the researchers called their newly developed substances synthetic cannabinoids. The creators of the first synthetic cannabinoids never intended for any human or test animal to consume them outside of a closely monitored laboratory setting. However, the formulas for these substances eventually made their way from legitimate research institutions to illegitimate, illegal drug manufacturers. While the lab names for synthetic cannabinoids are simple and rather nondescript groupings of letters and numbers, street versions of these substances go by intentionally provocative names that include Spice, K2, Moon Rocks and Skunk.
Perhaps the chief danger of synthetic marijuana consumption is severe overactivation of the brain pathways that give THC access to the brain. This fact holds true because synthetic cannabinoids often have a drug potency far greater than the potency of even the strongest natural marijuana. Potential consequences of exposure to various forms of the drug include hallucinations, nausea and vomiting, a highly confused or agitated mental state, tachycardia (an excessively rapid heartbeat) and a potentially severely hazardous drop in the amount of blood flowing to the heart’s muscle tissue. Some synthetic marijuana consumers experience non-fatal or fatal heart attacks. Addiction is another significant risk associated with regular use of the drug.
Known Risk Groups
A federal agency called the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration keeps year-to-year track of the number of Americans who require some sort of emergency treatment after consuming drugs or alcohol. In late 2012, this agency released a report specifically dedicated to ER visits stemming from synthetic marijuana use. The report indicates that, in 2010, roughly 11,406 people required emergency treatment after using a synthetic cannabinoid product. Fully 75 percent of all affected individuals were children or young adults between the ages of 12 and 29. By a margin of more than three to one, boys and men were more likely to receive synthetic marijuana-related ER care than girls and women.
Synthetic Marijuana and 12th Graders
In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from NYU’s Langone Medical Center and College of Nursing used data from three recent years (2011 to 2013) of Monitoring the Future, a teen-oriented nationally representative survey project, to help determine how many American 12th graders consume synthetic marijuana at least once. All told, information was included from a total of 11,863 seniors with an average age of 18.
The researchers concluded that roughly one-10th of the study participants had recently consumed some form of synthetic marijuana (i.e., used the drug at some point in the previous year). However, just 3 percent of the study participants qualified as “frequent users” by consuming synthetic marijuana at least six times in the previous year.
The researchers identified several factors that increase the odds of teen substance abuse and that any given 12th grader will consume a synthetic cannabinoid product. By far, the biggest risk contributor is a previous or past history of natural marijuana use. Other identified risk factors include having a previous or past history of using other drugs or alcohol, having a previous or past history of cigarette use and socializing outside the home at least four times a week. Conversely, 12th grade girls have generally reduced chances of consuming any form of synthetic marijuana.