Reported Adverse Effects and Death from Synthetic Cannabinoid Use Increases

On April 6, 2015, the CDC received notice of an increase in telephone calls to U.S. poison centers related to synthetic cannabinoid use. Monthly calls to all poison centers are tracked by the National Poison Data System, which reported that adverse health effects or concerns about possible adverse health effects related to synthetic cannabinoid use increased 330% from 349 in January 2015 to 1,501 in April 2015. The 2015 figures included a spike of 1,501 calls in April, and 15 reported deaths, a three-fold increase over the five deaths that were reported in 2014. The majority of calls were made by males and the median age was 26.


A recent CDC report discusses the increase and the adverse health effects associated with the use of synthetic cannabinoids. During the 2015 study period, poison centers reported 3,572 calls related to synthetic cannabinoid use, a 229% increase from the 1,085 calls during the same January to May period in 2014.


Synthetic cannabinoids include various psychoactive chemicals or a mixture of these chemicals that are sprayed onto plant material, which is then smoked or ingested to achieve a “high.” These products are known by a variety of names (e.g., synthetic marijuana, spice, K2, black mamba, and crazy clown) and are sometimes sold in retail outlets as herbal products. Law enforcement agencies have regulated a number of these substances. However, manufacturers of synthetic cannabinoids frequently change the formulation to avoid detection and regulation.


The most commonly reported adverse health effects associated with synthetic cannabinoid use were agitation, tachycardia, drowsiness or lethargy, vomiting, and confusion. Inhalation by smoking was the most common means of consumption (2,870 [80.3%]), followed by ingestion (698 [19.5%]). Most reported use was intentional (3,310 [92.7%]). Among 626 calls reporting use of synthetic cannabinoids with multiple substances, the most commonly reported other substances included alcohol (144 [23.0%]), plant-derived marijuana (103 [16.5%]), and benzodiazepines (69 [11.0%]). Only one of the deaths included reports of multiple substance use.


The CDC is concerned about the rapid increase in poison center calls about synthetic cannabinoids and adverse health effects reported, suggesting a need for enhanced efforts to remove these products from the marketplace. People who have these products in their home are encouraged to dispose of them in a trash can that is not accessible to pets.


The increasing number of synthetic cannabinoid variants available, higher toxicity of new variants, and the potentially increased use as indicated by calls to poison centers might suggest that synthetic cannabinoids pose an emerging public health threat. Multiple other recent outbreaks suggest a need for greater public health surveillance and awareness, targeted public health messaging, and enhanced efforts to remove these products from the market.


See the CDC Announcement


See the CDC Report