In the past two weeks, emergency room doctors at the University of Colorado Hospital have treated a steady stream of more than 20 very ill patients for severe reactions to synthetic marijuana.
Lab-produced synthetic pot products called Black Mamba and Spice were determined to be the cause of several Coloradans' trips to the emergency room in August and UCH officials are saying that perhaps this influx of new patients was simply due to a "bad batch" or perhaps a new, more potent and dangerous form has arrived on the market.
But now that Eric Holder has announced that the DOJ will let Colorado and Washington's new legal recreational marijuana laws go into effect, it begs the questions -- should synthetic weed be banned altogether? Or, at least, in states where natural weed is legal?
Although synthetic marijuana does provide users with a high, it is far and away from the kind of high that natural marijuana users experience and one that can lead to seizures, hallucinations and convulsions, according to a Los Angeles Times report from 2011. John W. Huffman, one of the scientists behind the creation of some synthetic strains of marijuana told The L.A. Times that the synthetics were "never intended for human consumption" and that "anybody who uses them is playing Russian roulette... they have profound psychological effects."
Synthetic marijuana can also produce severe psychological effects in users who have no history of vulnerability to mental illness. "Some of the patients are becoming pretty floridly psychotic," Dr. Joseph Pierre, UCLA professor and schizophrenia expert, said recently to Popular Science. Some of those adverse psychological effects even lasted weeks or months.
Huffman also supports banning synthetic pot and favors legalizing and taxing natural marijuana. "You can't overdose on marijuana," Huffman said. "But you might on these compounds." There are no published cases that document fatalities from people who smoked natural marijuana, so the so-called "lethal dose" remains a mystery, according to American Scientist.
"It is ironic and unfortunate that our laws prohibiting a relatively benign product like marijuana have steered people toward using a substance that presents more potential harm," said Mason Tvert, Marijuana Policy Project communications director and key figure in Colorado's road to recreational marijuana legalization, to The Huffington Post. "If our government is truly dedicated to protecting public health, it should be making an effort to inform the public about the fact that marijuana is far less harmful than these synthetic products. Its refusal to adopt an evidence-based marijuana policy is essentially steering people toward using a more dangerous product than they would otherwise prefer to use," Tvert said.
A UK study from 2012 echoed these sentiments with users who had tried both synthetic and natural cannabis. Users rated the synthetic strains as less likely to deliver pleasurable highs, more likely to induce feelings of paranoia and more harmful on the lungs. Many users who participated in the study even sought emergency medical help after using synthetic marijuana. Asked which form of cannabis they would chose to use again, 93 percent of participants opted for old-fashioned, natural marijuana.