“It’s important to note that the term ‘synthetic pot’ is a misnomer, it’s not an accurate description of the products,” said Dr. Michael Baumann, chief of the Designer Drug Research Unit of National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Although it looks like pot, it’s actually plants that have been sprayed with “bioactive, manmade chemicals that bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain to exert their effects,” he added.
“These chemicals are not related to THC in their structure,” he told BuzzFeed News. “THC is the active ingredient of marijuana. These chemicals are actually unique in their structure.”
And outbreaks caused by synthetic cannabinoids aren’t uncommon, he said, including a recent one in Indianapolis.
“It’s usually the same kind of thing where we have a localized area where a lot of people become sickened by a product similar to what you are seeing in Chicago,” he told BuzzFeed News. “What’s unique about these Chicago incidents is the bleeding issue so that makes this particular episode unique.”
Synthetic cannabinoids were first seen in Germany about 10 years ago, according to Dr. David A. Gorelick, professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.
“People were coming into emergency rooms, not just with temporary anxiety or a panic attack or transient psychosis, but with severe psychosis that required hospitalization,” Gorelick told BuzzFeed News.
Unlike plant-based cannabis, side effects can be severe with synthetic cannabinoids, including kidney damage, muscle damage, seizures, and the need for antipsychotic medication.
“Whatever you think about plant cannabis, synthetic cannabinoids are definitely medically and psychiatrically dangerous,” Gorelick said.
The drugs have spread around the world because they tend to be inexpensive and can’t be detected on standard drug tests.