Just two days after a suspected synthetic marijuana poisoning in New York City sent 33 people to the hospital, a new report finds that overdoses related to the street drug are rising across the country.
Tuesday’s mass overdose in Brooklyn left dozens of people shaking, vomiting, and passed out in the streets around the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Its suspected cause was synthetic marijuana, and law enforcement officials raided a number of stores on Wednesday to search for its source.
Commonly referred to by the street names K2 or Spice, synthetic marijuana encompasses a large group of lab-made chemicals designed to mimic the effects of marijuana. These chemicals are often sprayed on dried, shredded leaves or sold as a vaping liquid. But the synthetic forms are typically much more potent and much more dangerous than marijuana, causing complications ranging from kidney damage to toxic psychosis.
Now, a new report published by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention finds that overdoses from these substances have increased across the US over the last five years, with a particularly striking rise in the Northeast.
“These are dangerous drugs,” said Jeffrey Brent, director of the Toxicology Investigators Consortium, the research network that produced the report. “We are seeing a surge of medical complications from people using this class of drugs.”
The report pooled data from 50 medical centers across the US, which saw 456 patients for toxic effects of synthetic marijuana between 2010 and 2015. As a proportion of poisoning incidents, poisonings from synthetic marijuana increased in every region of the United States and increased more than 14 times in the Northeast — an uptick strongly driven by cases in New York City. In contrast, the network of medical centers saw only 13 cases of poisoning involving real marijuana, mostly in children.
Brent cautions that although there’s “no question” of high synthetic marijuana use in New York City, sampling bias may have driven some of the massive surge seen in the Northeast region. And over a third of all the patients reported combining synthetic cannabinoids with other drugs, complicating any conclusions about what caused the negative health effects.
Overall, though, the findings were consistent with two previous reports of increasing health complications from synthetic cannabinoids in the United States. In 2015 poison centers reported a 229 percent increase in calls related to synthetic cannabinoid use over the previous year. And a Drug Enforcement Agency report that same year found an increase in clusters of synthetic cannabinoid intoxication resulting in severe illness and death throughout 2014 and 2015.
But law enforcement is finding it difficult to stop the scourge, as manufacturers of these drugs are continuously introducing modified forms. Schedule I of the Controlled Substance Act currently lists 26 synthetic cannabinoids, but changing formulas and a lack of tests to detect the drugs make enforcement difficult.