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Synthetic Marijuana Use Common Among Young Adults, Study Finds

Synthetic marijuana products are drugs that contain a combination of mind-altering substances called synthetic cannabinoids and some type of inactive plant material. Most of the well-known main ingredients in these drugs are banned under federal law; however, illicit drug manufacturers commonly use chemical tricks to technically avoid legal liability for their actions. In a study published in September 2014 in the journal Substance Abuse, researchers from two U.S. institutions estimated how many young American adults currently consume a synthetic marijuana product. These researchers also explored the underlying factors that make involvement in this form of drug abuse more likely.

Synthetic Marijuana

Synthetic marijuana is the term commonly used to describe plant-based mixtures that contain synthetic cannabinoids. This reference is linked to the general appearance of the products sold by illicit/illegal manufacturers, as well as to the general resemblance between the effects of this new type of drug and the effects of naturally produced marijuana. Synthetic cannabinoids get their more specific name because they chemically mimic the drug effects of THC, the active cannabis/marijuana ingredient that belongs to a group of naturally occurring substances called cannabinoids. The technical names for the dozens of substances classified as synthetic cannabinoids are typically unmemorable combinations of letters and numbers. The much more prominent street names for the synthetic marijuana products that contain these substances include K2, Smashed, Spice and Skunk.

Synthetic cannabinoids reach the brain in the same manner as THC; however, since the creators of these active ingredients are looking for a specific drug effect, they often produce substances that far outstrip the typical potency of naturally occurring THC. This means that consumption of synthetic marijuana can lead to an exaggeration of some of the worst consequences of marijuana/cannabis use, including blood pressure and heartbeat elevation, breathing rate elevation, uncontrolled activation of the body’s muscles (i.e., tremors or convulsions) and the onset of delusional thinking and hallucinations, two symptoms of a psychotic mental state. Consumption of the drug can also lead to the onset of a fatal overdose, a nearly unheard-of event among consumers of marijuana/cannabis.

Previously Known Statistics

Federal and private researchers have previously assembled a partial picture of the extent of synthetic marijuana use in the U.S. For instance, in 2011, figures from a federally sponsored, University of Michigan-led survey called Monitoring the Future indicated that roughly 11.4 percent of all American 12th graders used some form of this drug at least once a year. By 2013, the annual rate of use in this grade dropped significantly to just 7.9 percent. Smaller percentages of younger teens use synthetic marijuana; however, among students enrolled in 8th grade, the only drugs consumed more often than synthetic marijuana are marijuana and inhalants.

Use Among Young Adults

In the study published in Substance Abuse, researchers from Brown University and Brown-affiliated Butler Hospital used survey information submitted by 1,080 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 to estimate how often people in this age group use synthetic marijuana. All of these individuals participated in the project at some point between the beginning of 2012 and the middle of 2013. Each participant provided information on the amount of synthetic marijuana he or she consumed in the previous 30 days, as well as basic demographic information (age, gender, racial/ethnic background, etc.) and information on his or her level of involvement in other forms of substance use.

The researchers found that roughly 9 percent of the study participants consumed synthetic marijuana in the month prior to participation in the study. This level of intake outpaced the level of intake recorded for three well-known types of mind-altering substances: hallucinogenic drugs, opioid drugs/medications and cocaine. Substance-related factors that increased the odds of synthetic marijuana use included binging on alcohol (getting drunk in two hours or less), smoking cigarettes and consuming marijuana/cannabis on either a weekly or daily basis. Additional factors that increased the odds of using the drug included being male and not currently attending high school or a college or university.

The study’s authors note that reports of synthetic marijuana use in their young adult sample dropped considerably after a federal law outlawing the consumption of the most widely produced synthetic cannabinoids went into effect in the middle of 2012. Still, they characterize monthly use of the drug as “common” in young adults, especially among those individuals who also consume marijuana or some other legal or illicit/illegal substance.

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