Synthetic Marijuana: A National Health Crisis?

The fight for, and against, legal marijuana is heating up all across the country and is becoming a national health crisis. Only a few states so far have taken the plunge and outright legalized recreational marijuana but everywhere else people are doing what they do best: circumventing the law in some truly creative ways.

In this case, unfortunately, that creativity has led to some tragic results. I’m talking about synthetic marijuana: a substance that, in some areas of the country, has practically become a public health emergency and a national health crisis. Sure: unlicensed chemists making mysterious compounds in their basement is a big part of the problem, but so is the ongoing prohibition of cannabis across the US.

national health crisis

How Big Is the Problem?

Synthetic cannabis goes by many names, including Scooby snacks, K2, and spice. Whatever they’re called, they tend to reach US markets by way of foreign labs, which produce the stuff by spraying a variety of psychoactive chemicals onto ?inert? herbs. The resulting products are then generally sold without any real accountability as to their chemical composition. As a result, our state and federal governments are scrambling to stay ahead of the ever-lengthening list of synthetic cannabis products making their way onto the streets.

If you’re not familiar with this particular problem and the national health crisis it’s creating, here’s a brief recap: in April 2015, around 1,000 calls were placed to poison control centers about complications arising from synthetic cannabis use. Again, that’s just in one month. As reported by The Fix, several states have reported a spike in hospitalizations thanks to the rise in popularity of this particular type of drug. Complications include violent behavior and long-term delusions, seizures, strokes, kidney and liver damage, heart attacks, and even death. Doctors have been scrambling to explain the spate of deaths seen in places like Pennsylvania’s midstate region, and so far signs point to a fairly new type of drug: one that goes by the name MAB-CHMINACA. Even so, the sheer variety of products and chemical combinations make this a particularly difficult problem to pinpoint, and an even harder one to remedy.

What Prohibition Hath Wrought — a National Health Crisis

Back in the days of alcohol prohibition, it became clear enough to everybody involved that outlawing a popular product wasn’t going to stop people from finding ways to purchase that product. Remember speakeasies? Maybe it’s best to forget. In any event, prohibition can also make a potentially dangerous vice much more dangerous to pursue.

This is why needle exchanges are gaining significant momentum in Canada, parts of Europe, and even in forward-thinking American cities. The reasoning goes something like this: If we can’t stop people from taking (for example) heroin, and we know that people who do use heroin have difficulty doing so safely, we may as well help them stay safe even while we push for proper treatment and shorter prison sentences for non-violent offenses.

Marijuana is, under federal law, considered a Schedule I drug. This classification indicates that a particular substance has no observable medicinal value, and use of it should be prosecuted to the full extent of federal law. At least, that’s the Reefer Madness-era version of the truth that still, unfortunately, informs cannabis policy in the US. Anybody who’s paying attention knows that the medical benefits of cannabis are well documented, and new applications seem to be discovered on a regular basis.

Nevertheless, cannabis prohibition has made researching it extremely difficult; synthetic pot was actually developed to provide researchers with similar compounds for their research. Using these products recreationally followed, inevitably, sometime later. And here we are.

What’s the Real Danger?

Compared with the recent rise in hospitalizations and deaths attributed to synthetic pot, confirmed cases of overdose from ?standard? marijuana use remain virtually unheard-of. There are no major health concerns associated with smoking marijuana. Nevertheless, marijuana remains among the most contested drugs in the country.

Consider this data from a Swiss study, which found that marijuana use results in a 33% chance of being injured while under the influence. Compare that with alcohol consumption, which carries a 250% chance. And yet, alcohol remains legal to purchase for adults almost everywhere in the States: a fact that seems lost on our state legislatures, where ?wait and see? appears to be the order of the day. To be clear: even marijuana’s relatively low harm score of 33% is far above zero, but its relative harm, when compared to other legally?and widely?available substances, is certainly of interest.

Now, let’s be clear about something. In many of the cases now rolling out across the country, it’s clear that synthetic marijuana is not just a danger to the users, but also to the people around them. Ask this bus driver from Oklahoma City, who caused a multi-vehicle crash. It stands to reason that if a bus driver could come to work under the influence of synthetic marijuana, he’s certainly capable of coming to work under the influence of the garden variety as well. We like to think of pot use?any kind of pot use?as a victimless crime, but this isn’t always true. Any legal expert will tell you that a settlement, if this bus driver had injured another person, could cost upward of $8.9 million, if the accident involved injury to a minor.

Prohibition’s Legacy

Look: it goes without saying that the use of marijuana is still a vice. It comes with certain risks, particularly where developing brains are concerned. If you (or someone you know) are having a problem with pot use, or with any other drug, you should seek help. Right now.

But for the rest of us, it’s worth remembering that cannabis prohibition is just?78 years old. Up to that point, it could be found growing freely across the country. We did our best to stamp it out, but cannabis use among adults has only increased over the last decade, with 48% of American adults now saying they’ve used it. This is the largest percentage of the population that has ever made such a claim.

In other words, it’s become perfectly clear that the long reach of the State will never be able to put an end to behaviors it deems unsavory. Synthetic cannabis is one consequence of its attempts to do so. To be sure: drug use will always inhabit the messy intersection of responsible public policy and individual freedoms, but as things stand now, it’s clear that something needs to change.

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