Study: States legalizing pot saw big drop in synthetic cannabinoid poisonings

States that have legalized cannabis saw a big drop in synthetic cannabinoid poisonings, a new study says. Photo by lovingimages/Pixabay
States that have legalized cannabis saw a big drop in synthetic cannabinoid poisonings, a new study says. Photo by lovingimages/Pixabay

Aug. 9 (UPI) -- A new study reports a 37% drop in poisoning reports for dangerous, illegal synthetic cannabinoids in states that have legalized cannabis, as compared to states with restrictive marijuana policies.

"This study shows some potential public health benefits to the legalization and regulation of adult use of cannabis," the study's lead author Tracy Klein, associate professor of nursing at Washington State University, said in a news release.


Findings from the Washington State-led research were published Tuesday in the Journal of Clinical Toxicology.

Based on previous research, along with this study, Klein said, "it's evident that users who have a choice to use a less toxic product would potentially do so."

According to the scientists, synthetic cannabinoids are not actually cannabis, but are so named because they work on the same cannabinoid receptors in the brain as the psychoactive component in the cannabis plant: tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.


Yet, illicit synthetic drugs bind with those receptors up to 100 times more strongly and lack any of the "mediating constituents" of whole plant cannabis, such as cannabidiol or CBD.

For this reason, synthetic cannabinoids have a high toxicity and can lead to severe impairment and even death, they said.

The study looked at dangerous designer drugs known by street names such as K2, Spice or AK-47, which are hard to detect using standard drug tests, the release said.

In fact, the researchers said their study likely underestimates the use of these drugs because they are difficult to unearth.

"You can't easily test for illicit cannabinoids. A lot of times, we only find out if a patient has been using them because they're hospitalized or because they're dead," said Klein, who is also assistant director of Washington State University's Center for Cannabis Policy, Research and Outreach.

For the study, the investigators analyzed data from the National Poison Data System from 2016 to 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

They focused on states with "relatively stable policies" on cannabis during those years, putting them in categories: "permissive" like Washington state, allowing both medical and recreational adult use of cannabis; "medical" like Hawaii, permitting cannabis only for medical use, or "restrictive" like Idaho, prohibiting nearly all cannabis use.


During this time period, there were 7,600 calls reporting poisoning linked to synthetic cannabinoid use, about 65% of which required medical attention, the release said. And there were 61 deaths.

Overall, the researchers found that synthetic drug-related poisoning reports fell from 2016 to 2019, with 13% fewer such reports in "medical" pot states and the more significant drop of 37% in "permissive" pot states.

Researchers noted a previous study found that cannabis-related calls to U.S. poison control centers increased from 2017 to 2019 nationwide. But they said in the release that these calls "were driven mainly by manufactured products, such as plant-based vaping materials and edibles, which can contain high levels of THC."

However, poison control calls related to whole plant cannabis declined during the same time period, they said.

There are instances of synthetic cannabinoids being made for medical use, including dronabinol and nabilone, which primarily treat nausea associated with cancer treatment, the researchers said. Illicit versions of synthetic cannabinoids, illegal in all states, serve no medical purpose.

Yet enforcement can be difficult because drug makers change formulas frequently, the scientists said, and the fact that synthetic drugs are typically undetected in standard urine drug tests perhaps contributes to their use in "restrictive" pot states.


Klein added that regulators are 'struggling to catch up" as many newly developed synthetic cannabinoids, including Delta-8, enter the market.

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