25 Feb Determining the Health Effects of Synthetic Marijuana
Synthetic marijuana is a general term used to describe a group of illegal substances that contain active ingredients know as synthetic cannabinoids. In the 2000s, use of these substances has become a topic of heavy interest among sectors of society that include drug agencies, drug researchers, parents, media outlets and emergency medical personnel. Generally speaking, synthetic cannabinoids achieve their effects by producing brain changes similar to those produced by THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient in marijuana and hashish. However, in combination with other plants and chemicals present in synthetic marijuana, these manmade substances also appear to produce unique, unpredictable and potentially dangerous or fatal health effects that differ from those produced by THC.
Synthetic cannabinoids are a group of chemicals typically known by unusual, laboratory-based names such as JWH-018, HU-210, JWH-200, and AM694. Synthetic marijuana makers apply these chemicals to dried plant materials that resemble decorative batches of potpourri and package the resulting plant-chemical mixtures in individual doses. Distributors then sell these packages at physical locations such as “head shops,” convenience stores, and gas stations, as well as through virtual locations established on the Internet. Plants sometimes used in synthetic marijuana preparations include traditional medicinal herbs such as lion’s tail, dwarf skullcap, honeyweed, and blue Egyptian water lily.
In 2012, the federal government banned the sale of synthetic marijuana; most states have also enacted their own bans. However, manufacturers of these substances can technically evade existing laws by making large or small alterations in the chemical formula of any given synthetic cannabinoid. This means that synthetic marijuana products are still for sale in many parts of the country, and will likely continue to be available in some form for the foreseeable future.
THC Vs. Synthetic Cannabinoids
When marijuana or hashish enter the bloodstream, THC achieves its mind-altering effects by binding to specific sites, called cannabinoid receptors, found on cells in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord); the compound also binds to different receptor sites on cells in the immune system. Most cannabinoid receptors in the central nervous system are found in parts of the brain that help control functions such as pleasure responses, concentration, memory, basic thought processes, movement coordination, time perception, and sensory input. Altered or heightened activation of these functions accounts for THC’s mind-altering effects.
Synthetic cannabinoids also bind to the cannabinoid receptor sites in the central nervous system, the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains. However, compared to THC and other naturally occurring cannabinoids, synthetic cannabinoids latch on to those receptors much more tenaciously. Because THC and synthetic cannabinoids bind to the same receptors, the effects of synthetic marijuana mimic some of the effects of the marijuana plant. However, the differences in binding strength mean that synthetic marijuana can trigger unpredictable effects that vary according to the specific type of synthetic cannabinoid in use, and/or according to the specific blend of additional substances found in any given synthetic marijuana product.
Known Potential Health Effects
Because of the vast range of potential combinations between different synthetic cannabinoids and different plant or chemical additives, no one knows for sure what effect any given synthetic marijuana product will have on the human body. This problem is made worse by factors that include the illegal, unregulated nature of synthetic marijuana production; the newness of synthetic marijuana as a social and medical phenomenon; and lack of the time required to perform the sorts of long-range studies that uncover any given substance’s full range of effects.
Despite all of these obstacles, drug specialists, doctors, and public health experts have pieced together considerable evidence on synthetic marijuana’s potential immediate or short-term health effects. Emergency room personnel treating synthetic marijuana users have reported a variety of potentially serious problems, including vomiting, hallucinations, unusually aggressive behavior, confusion, an abnormally rapid heartbeat, impaired thought processes, speech impairments, movement impairments, and cases of catatonia, a condition characterized by an abnormal lack of responsiveness to all forms of external stimulation. In addition, some synthetic marijuana users taken to poison control centers have developed potentially fatal conditions that include heart attack and a dangerous reduction in the heart’s normal blood supply.
Because of the obstacles involved in studying synthetic marijuana, scientists and doctors have no idea what sorts of effects long-term use of the drug may produce. In fact, since the content of synthetic marijuana is so variable, any long-term effects discovered in the future will likely differ according to the specific chemicals in use. Chief among the concerns of most experts is the potential for harm to developing teens and pre-teens. When they use mind-altering substances, people in these age groups have increased risks for problems with normal brain function and the onset of psychosis or other serious mental disorders.
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