In the last few days the South African news cycle has been going crazy with the story of several teenagers who ingested an unknown drug(Synthetic Cannabis) and were subsequently sent to hospital. Alarming videos have been making the rounds on social media of children who are unresponsive or incoherent at the time of medical intervention. So far very little has been given in the way of answers as to what this mysterious drug is or what it’s doing. The best answer we have been given is that it is similar to marijuana and that it has been sent for testing. Given the images that have been shown by news outlets it is suspected that the drug that was consumed is a synthetic cannabinoid.
What are synthetic cannabinoids?
A synthetic cannabinoid is a chemical compound that activates the same neuroreceptor in the brain as organic cannabinoids, such as THC that is found in marijuana. These are not the same chemical, they simply have a similar effect on the same part of the brain. The chemical compound is added to plant matter that makes it easy to smoke. Despite some misconceptions these substances contain no actual cannabis. It can also be consumed as a tea or in some cases the drug is produced as a liquid that can be used in vapes or e-cigarettes.
What to be on the lookout for.
Synthetic cannabinoids are sold under a range of names, the common ones being: Herbal Blend, Blazing, Puff, Spice, Incense, Fake Weed, K2. It comes in small foil packets and will look like a legitimate mass-produced product. The contents resemble dried marijuana, but also Robertson’s Mixed Herbs. Many manufactures will not put any identifying information on the packaging but it will often come with warnings such as: “Harmful if swallowed”, “May cause respiratory irritation”, or even “Not for human consumption”.
Origins and Production
Synthetic cannabinoids were first produced in a lab by chemist John Huffman as part of his research into marijuana. This research was leaked and black-market producers quickly realized that since these substances contained no actual banned chemicals, it could easily be sold and marketed to vulnerable persons as an alternative to illegal drugs such as marijuana and party drugs.
The science behind synthetic cannabinoids made it very appealing to producers who wanted to skirt around the law. When a government classes or criminalizes a drug, they use its chemical structure to identify it. Because the manufactures could continually shift a few molecules around they could keep the drugs legal. But this also poses a huge danger to the persons consuming it. One synthetic cannabinoid, HU-210, was found to be 100 times more potent than THC. A person could buy the same brand, from the same vendor and receive a vastly different product. This dramatically increases the likelihood of overdose.
What are the legal implications?
For the moment, all synthetic cannabinoids are not under any type of legal restriction in South Africa. These products can be bought, sold and consumed without any fear of legal repercussions. The drug has however been criminalized in many parts of the world due to its dangerous and addictive nature. In most cases the passing of this drugs classification and the subsequent criminalizing, has been as a response to an epidemic like surge in use. The UK passed their Psychoactive Substances Act in 2016 as a response to the ‘Spice Crisis’. When considering legality, it is always important to remember that just because something is legal does not mean it is safe.
What are the side effects?
Because of the ever-changing chemical structure of synthetic marijuana, side effects are difficult to pin down. Problems may vary from batch to batch. What we do know for sure is that synthetic cannabinoids are highly addictive, has a high propensity for abuse and does cause withdrawal symptoms after sustained use.
The following is a list of documented side effects:
- High Blood Pressure
- Confusion and Paranoia
- Rapid heart rate
- Heart Attack
- Renal Failure
- Loss of Consciousness
- Bleeding from the eyes, nose and ears
- Psychotic and Violent Behaviour
- Psychosis (lasting anywhere between a few weeks to a few month)
- In extreme cases death
Treatment and Detoxification
Addiction to any substance, no matter how innocuous it may seem, should always be taken seriously. Because the withdrawal symptoms of synthetic marijuana can be extremely varied there is no one shoe fits all solution in terms of detoxification. It is recommended that this process be supervised by a medical professional in a contained environment, like an inpatient facility. This is the first step and it should be followed by therapeutic intervention, the same way any other drug addiction would be treated.
Synthetic marijuana is not something new, it has just started gaining popularity in South Africa. Many people around the world have already seen how bad it can get. The research has been done. There are mountains of evidence to support that these substances are not something to be trifled with. Even the chemist, John Huffman, who created this class of drug has said “only an idiot would use them.” These products are advertised as a cheap, easily accessible, non-addictive high. If this sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.
Charlie van de Erve
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