Belated Tox Tuesday: Synthetic marijuana update

Moderator’s note: Tox Tuesday will be back to its regularly-scheduled day for the next edition, Tuesday, Jan. 7.

As governments around the world wrangle with how to deal with so-called “legal highs”, new findings suggest that the drugs’ popularity may be waning.

Synthetic marijuana, or spice, is often considered a legal high because it contains ingredients that produce a similar high to marijuana but may not be illegal or are not perceived to be illegal as it often is sold as “plant food” or “incense” on the internet or at gas stations. Although many countries have banned spice and its components, those making the drug often switch up ingredients to stay inside the law. For example, although the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) banned many of the chemicals used in spice in 2011, new varieties continue to crop up.

However, the tide may be turning against these drugs. New findings from the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study indicate that teens may be moving away from the drug. For example, only 7.9 percent of U.S. 12th graders surveyed had tried synthetic pot as compared to 11.3 percent in 2012. In 2012, synthetic pot was the second most popular drug among high school sophomores and seniors second only to the real thing – marijuana. It’s worth noting that marijuana usage during this same time frame among high schoolers has increased from 11.4 percent last year to 12.7 for eighth graders, from 28 percent to 29.8 percent for 10th graders and has stayed level for 12th graders at 36.4 percent.

The study has surveyed 40,000 to 50,000 students each year since 1991. It is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

In 2010, synthetic marijuana was linked to more than 10,000 emergency room visits with 75 percent of those involving young people ages 12 to 29. About 3,800 of those visits were made by teens 12 to 17 years old.

The U.S. military also is cracking down on spice use – last week, the Department of Defense (DOD) announced it would conduct random urine tests for the drug. Previously, only limited testing was conducted. This has changed thanks in part to the availability of tests for spice. The DOD estimated that approximately 2.5 percent of U.S. service members had used spice in 2012 – a number that’s fallen to 0.05 percent in 2013, a Pentagon spokesperson told Stars and Stripes.

Many officials believe that the decrease is related to awareness on the dangers of spice. Last month, University of South Florida researchers published findings that spice may be related ischemic stroke in young people, while officials in the United Kingdom have found that deaths linked to legal highs (not just spice) jumped from 28 in 2011 to 52 in 2012.

Read our previous Tox Tuesday on spice here.

Update: On April 17, 2014, Ohio banned two chemicals — PB-22 and 5f-PB-22 and their variations — used to make synthetic drugs. To learn more about the ban, click here.

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