Synthetic marijuana is touted as a safe legal alternative to illicit drugs, but its use was linked to 11,561 reports of poisonings in the United States between January 2009 and April 2012.
Popular with teens, synthetic marijuana shows up on shelves as Spice, K2, Scooby Doo, and hundreds of other names. In 2011, more than one out of 10 high school seniors in the US used synthetic cannabinoids, making them the most commonly used drug after real marijuana.
“Use began to decrease last year, but the drug still poses a substantial threat, and research was needed to determine which teens are at highest risk for use,” says Joseph J. Palamar, assistant professor of population health at New York University and an affiliated researcher at the Center for Drug Use and HIV Research.
Race and sex
Published online in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the study used data from Monitoring the Future (MTF), a nationwide ongoing annual study of the behaviors, attitudes, and values of American secondary school students.
The survey is administered in approximately 130 public and private schools throughout 48 states in the US. Roughly 15,000 high school seniors are assessed annually.
The current study examined data from 11,863 students who were asked a variety of questions to gauge their use of natural and synthetic marijuana from 2011 to 2013.
Race and sex are significantly correlated with synthetic marijuana use. Compared to girls, boys were consistently at greater risk for synthetic marijuana use and more frequent use. Black students were 42 percent less likely to report synthetic marijuana use and 36 percent less likely to report more frequent use than white students.
“However, when we factor in other drug use, we find that identifying as a racial minority no longer remains a protective factor,” Palamar says.
“The data also showed that students who go out four to seven nights per week for fun were at high risk for experimenting and for continuing use. More research is needed, but this may be due to increased exposure to others who use these products during these nightly activities.”
The study also shows that students who engage in the use of other substances were more likely to use synthetic marijuana.
Lifetime use of alcohol nearly doubled the odds for use. Cigarette smoking also increased risk for synthetic marijuana use, particularly regular smoking either in the past or in the present. Reporting lifetime use of any illicit drug other than natural marijuana more than doubled the odds for use.
Overlap with ‘real’ marijuana
Most importantly, frequency of lifetime marijuana use was the strongest correlate, with more frequent use further increasing odds of synthetic marijuana use.
“Our main finding was that very few never-users of natural marijuana have ever tried synthetic marijuana,” Palamar says.
“Only 0.5 percent of non-marijuana users reported use. Although we were unable to determine whether use of natural marijuana tended to occur before synthetic marijuana, results do suggest that it is mainly marijuana users who are at greatest risk for use.”
It’s likely that many of these synthetic marijuana users resort to trying this “legal,” but more dangerous version of marijuana in order to avoid possible arrest, detection on drug screenings, or the stigma associated with being an illicit drug user.
The study could be helpful in designing national and local efforts to prevent use and subsequent adverse consequences, the researchers say.
Further investigation is needed to determine if synthetic marijuana serves as a gateway drug to natural marijuana and other illicit drugs and to see if teens are still turning to this more dangerous form of marijuana in states where recreational marijuana use is now legal for adults.
Monitoring the Future data were collected through a research grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Palamar’s research on use of new and emerging psychoactive drugs also receives support from NIDA.