Marijuana was involved in nearly half a million emergency room visits in 2010, according to a new federal report, which officials are pointing to as evidence that the synthetic version of the drug should be a growing concern.
The DAWN Report, released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA), shows that two years ago, synthetic marijuana was a factor in 11,406 emergency room visits in the U.S. The natural stuff, on the other hand, accounted for an additional 461,028 visits. (See the full spreadsheet here.)
Both of those numbers may seem high – especially for a drug often perceived as harmless – but put them in context: On average, there are more than 136 million emergency room visits in the U.S. every year. Locally speaking, LAC+USC Medical Center alone, which provides nearly 30 percent of the county's trauma care, sees an average of 200,000 patients annually.
But despite the relatively low number of visits to the ER prompted by weed, it's still a concern for health providers. Dr. Sean Nordt, the director of toxicology in the department of emergency medicine at LAC+USC, says the synthetic stuff is more worrisome than its natural counterpart, in part because partakers are still learning how to use it.
"Any time a new drug hits the street, there's a learning curve," he said. "People have to learn how to smoke and how to use it." (Not that he condones that, he added.)
In the case of synthetic pot, that learning curve involves prolonged highs, more severe highs, psychiatric problems and seizures.
"Everyone knows people smoking marijuana can feel paranoid – that's amplified with [synthetic marijuana]," said Nordt.
While natural weed will "lose potency over time," synthetic pot does not. That's because it's not a plant – it's a chemical that's sprayed onto some herbs, to give users the "illusion" that it's marijuana.
"They're just using this herbal material to deliver it," said Nordt.
Plus, it's easily accessible – anyone with a computer can order it online, even though it's effectively been banned by federal health officials. There's an easy loophole for manufacturers, though: Those laws only prohibit certain, very specific molecular forms of the synthetic drug, and it's extremely easy for developers to change even just a single molecule and create a drug that's essentially identical – except the new form isn't, technically, illegal.
On top of all that, said Nordt, using synthetic marijuana doesn't seem as illicit as using it in its natural form.
"It comes in a package," he said. "It gives the illusion that it's much more pharmaceutical than buying it on a street corner."
The DAWN Report noted that synthetic marijuana sent people to the ER in 2010 at a rate of nearly four people for every 100,000; its natural counterpart's rate was 149 per 100,000.
Nordt explained some ways natural weed could prompt an ER visit.
"Most commonly what someone's going to have is paranoia – that would be something that brings them in because they get terrified," he said. "Or they'll complain of their heart beating really fast, or chest pain, or because they're altered they can get themselves into dangerous situations." (Think traffic accidents, fights and clumsy mishaps.)
"Little kids would not be uncommon either," he said – it's less rare than many might think for children to get into their parents' brownies or stash. In some rare instances, kids have had to be intubated and been almost comatose because they ingested marijuana.
There's also the effects of smoking anything, whether or not it's illegal: There are "high incidences" of throat, jaw and esophageal cancer, said Nordt, although those aren't typical ER ailments.
Authors of the DAWN Report did acknowledge that this data isn't, by any means, comprehensive, noting that some jurisdictions don't test for marijuana or report it to DAWN, meaning the "full extent of the underreporting of marijuana is unknown." Using the data it did have, though, DAWN determined that among the more than 11,400 people who went to the ER for synthetic-weed related reasons:
– An overwhelming number were male.
– There was a pretty even split between those were younger and older than 21.
– Most were white.
– Most were treated and promptly sent home.
– About 1,900 were admitted to the hospital.
– Nearly 4,900 were on multiple drugs when they showed up to the ER.
Photo by Schorle via Wikimedia Commons.