Synthetic Cannabinoids

Marketed as a “legal high,” use of synthetic cannabinoids, or “synthetic marijuana” can cause dangerous health effects including psychotic episodes and seizures.

953 Exposures

January 1, 2018 to May 31, 2018

June 2018: Alert! The CDC and several health departments are actively investigating cases of severe bleeding among people who have used synthetic cannabinoids. If you have purchased any synthetic cannabinoid product (e.g. K2, Spice, Synthetic Marijuana, etc.) since March 1, 2018, do not use it. If you begin to experience severe unexplained bleeding or bruising and have used one of these products, seek medical care immediately. Health care providers should consult their local poison control center for advice on patient management (1-800-222-1222). For more information, see CDC’s Clinical Action alert here

With names like Spice, K2, No More Mr. Nice Guy, and hundreds of others, the drugs often called “synthetic marijuana” are – in reality – very different from marijuana. They contain powerful chemicals called cannabimimetics and can cause dangerous health effects. The drugs are made specifically to be abused. Like many other illegal drugs, synthetic marijuana is not tested for safety, and users don’t really know exactly what chemicals they are putting into their bodies.

These synthetic drugs can be extremely dangerous and addictive. Health effects from the drug can be life-threatening and can include:

  • Severe agitation and anxiety.
  • Fast, racing heartbeat and higher blood pressure.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Muscle spasms, seizures, and tremors.
  • Intense hallucinations and psychotic episodes.
  • Suicidal and other harmful thoughts and/or actions.

Poison center experts – as well as many federal, state, and local government officials – have called synthetic drug use a risk to the public’s health and a hazard to public safety.

In 2018, through May, poison centers received reports of 953 exposures to synthetic cannabinoids (PDF).*Please note that the numbers may change as cases are closed and additional information is received*

The harmful effects from these products were first reported in the U.S. in 2009. Since then, the drugs have spread throughout the country. Poison centers received 2,668 calls about exposures to these drugs in 2013, 3,682 exposures in 2014, and 7,797 exposures in 2015.

What should you do if someone has used synthetic cannabinoids?

Call your local poison center at 1-800-222-1222. Fifty-five poison centers around the country have experts waiting to answer your call. These experts can help you decide whether someone can be treated at home, or whether he or she must go to a hospital.

Dial 9-1-1 immediately if someone: 

  • Stops breathing. 
  • Collapses. 
  • Has a seizure.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) (2014), within the past two years there has been an increased pattern of drug abuse in St. Louis, Missouri related to synthetic drugs, herbal preparations, and synthetic cannabinoids (Israel, 2014). Poison center experts, otherwise known as Specialists in Poison Information (SPIs), closely monitor this information and upload data to NPDS as calls come into the Poison Help Line at 1-800-222-1222. Similar to St. Louis, poison centers saw a surge in synthetic cannabinoid exposures (n=268) in November 2016. According to KOMU-TV, the NBC-affiliated television station for mid-Missouri many of the exposed individuals were a part of the homeless population.

Although research on poison data pertaining to synthetic cannabinoid exposures has evolved within the past years, it is important to note that the real time surveillance and tracking of these exposures highlights the importance and need for poison center surveillance. In order for public health professionals to treat conditions which contribute to health disparities, they must first be involved in the impacted communities. Fortunately, the American Association of Poison Control Centers supports the nation’s 55 poison centers which are located in states and territories in an effort to protect the public’s health while preventing and treating poison exposures.

For more information, call your local poison center at 1-800-222-1222. Poison centers are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year for poisoning emergencies and for informational calls.

Download fact sheet

Find Your Local Poison Center

Poison centers offer free, private, confidential medical advice 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can reach your local poison center by calling 1-800-222-1222.

View all Poison Control Centers