'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 products.

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 ...


  1. On a political note, Australia needs to start looking across the Tasman to the example that New Zealand is setting in approaching the myriad problems surrounding 'drugs' overall, with their 'Psychoactive Substances Bill', which has just been read in parliament.

    These synthetic cannabinomimetics are just a new facet to an old war... the war on alternative psychoactive substances. Alcohol is condoned and ingrained in our culture but it seems that many parts of our culture also have other psychoactive substances ingrained in them.

    There are differing dangers and risks associated with different substances and with the black market overall.

    Our governments' current response is to schedule these emergent substances in the same way as the old substances... which just means that we go around the merry-go-round again, without having learned the lessons of the past.

    We need to move forward.

  2. Thanks for writing this Paul. As always, we really like the factual and un-histrionic way you present your information. It makes you a very credible source of information, so thank you!


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