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‘Synthetic cannabis’: What is it and should parents be worried?

Speaking at as many schools as I do each year, it isn’t difficult to identify emerging alcohol and other drug trends amongst school-based young people. In the middle of last year growing numbers of students began to start asking about ‘legal cannabis’ and the questions haven’t really stopped since then … sadly, I’ve also been contacted by others who have used these products, sometimes only once, and have experienced significant problems, sometimes even resulting in hospitalisation.

Here is an example of one of the emails I have received, this time from a 15 year old young man who had heard me present at his school the previous day but was concerned that I wasn’t covering ‘synthetic marijuana’ in my talks and wanted to share his story with me …

“i have had a very very, bad experience with the synthetic marijuana known as kronic, which can be easily purchased … by anyone … Since my experience with the drug (first time ive taken any drug besides alcohol) i have had major anxiety which has started after a panic attack that came out of nowhere a month after the experience. I am very confused and am suffering any advice on how to cope with this would be greatly appreciated, but my main concern is that no-one else has to go through this when it could be prevented with knowledge …”

The rest of his email discussed the fact that this was a legal drug. One of his friend’s older brothers had bought the product at a local tobacconist and that was the reason he had made the decision to experiment with the product – it was legally available so it must be harmless! Of course, that just makes no sense at all – but to a 15 year old seeking peer acceptance and wanting desperately to fit in it makes perfect sense.

So what is so called ‘legal cannabis’ or ‘synthetic marijuana’?

Since approximately 2004, ‘herbal mixtures’ often marketed
as incense or air freshener have been sold across the world via the Internet or
specialty shops as a ‘legal’ substitute for cannabis. Warnings on the products stated
that they were not intended for human consumption, but at the same time they
were promoted as a ‘herbal’ cannabis alternative undetectable by conventional
drug testing. Researchers discovered that the labelling of these products
was not accurate and that synthetic cannabinoids, not ‘herbs’, were responsible
for the effects that users were reporting. The herbal ingredients cited on the
packaging did not appear to contribute to the reported effects, and in fact
were not even present in most of the products.

These products appear to have been available in Australia
for some time via the Internet as well as through specialist adult stores
(e.g., ‘sex shops’ or ‘head shops’) as well as tobacconists. It was not until
early 2011, however, that the sales of one particular product ‘Kronic’, led to
national interest in synthetic cannabinoid products, mainly due to their use by miners who were using them for their cannabis-like effect but wanted to avoid a positive workplace drug test.

Synthetic cannabinoids are often called ‘research
chemicals’, produced in laboratories and not yet tested or approved for human
consumption. The vast majority have only been recently synthesized and very
little, if anything, is known about the risks associated with their use. What
little we know is concerning, for example, it has been reported that one,
HU-210, has 100 times the potency of THC. We know most about one particular
compound – JWH-018, the chemical found in the original synthetic cannabinoid

It is believed that these compounds work on similar
receptors in the brain as cannabis, so it is assumed that the risks associated
with their use are similar to those for cannabis. Although some of the reported
physical effects are problematic (e.g. loss of consciousness, increased blood
pressure and heart rate), it is the psychological impacts that are the most
concerning, with some users experiencing panic attacks, anxiety, and
depression. There are many case reports now of users experimenting with these
products that need to seek emergency medical assistance.

I do need to stress that we know so little about the compounds that are used in these products that it is extremely difficult to issue accurate warnings to users or potential users. It worries me when the more extreme case reports hit the headlines and these are portrayed as the norm – these products have been very popular and not everyone has been admitted to hospital as a result of their use! Any warnings issued should be based on evidence – anything less than that and it could blow up in our face! Young people don’t believe much of what we say about drugs as it is – we don’t want to make it worse. I believe that being honest and saying that these compounds are so new that we simply don’t know what effect they will have is frightening enough!

Unfortunately, in Australia, there continues to be great confusion as to the legal status
of synthetic cannabinoid products. Due to concerns over risks to public health
and safety, fuelled by a rapid increase in popularity and use, Australian governments,
both federal and state, responded by banning a range of compounds.
The manufacturers responded by distributing new products
that they claimed did not contain any of the banned compounds. Once identified,
these compounds were also quickly outlawed, thus making these new products
illegal. In turn, the manufacturers developed other new products claiming yet
again that these were legal, and so it goes on. Whether these compounds are more or less harmful
than those originally banned is not known.

Synthetic cannabinoid products being sold as ‘legal highs’
are similar to illicit drugs – little is known about what is in them or what
the effects will be for individuals. As the companies producing these products
try to stay one step ahead of government bans, they are potentially developing
compounds that may possibly be even more harmful. Many of these compounds are so new that they have never been
tested on animals, let alone humans. Those who choose to experiment with these
products truly are being the ‘guinea pigs’ for the future.

We are not going to see these products disappear anytime soon – as fast as one is banned, another two appear on the market. Information is power – gather as much good quality, accurate and up-to-date information on the topic as possible and be prepared …

Looking for information or support services on alcohol or drugs?

If you or a friend or family member needs assistance in this area, Alcohol and Drug Information Services (ADIS) are available in every state and territory. Each of these are each staffed by trained professionals who can help with your query and provide confidential advice or refer you to an appropriate service in your area.

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