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Research & Development Medical research, Cannabinoid analysis, Adverse effects

Dawn of the (Synthetic) Dope

Synthetic cannabinoids, such as “Spice” or “K2”, have exploded in popularity over the past decade. Over 150 synthetic cannabinoids are now known, each with differing potencies. These novel psychoactive substances bind to the same cannabinoid receptor as THC, but many do so with higher affinity and so result in stronger effects. The ‘zombie-like’ state that these compounds can induce when taken in large doses has become notorious.

To better understand the effect of synthetic cannabinoids on users, Eef L. Theunissen conducted a placebo-controlled study of 17 cannabis-experienced participants (1). Theunissen says, “Up until now, all we knew about synthetic cannabinoids resulted from hospital and toxicology reports and animal research. These are valuable, but to have a full-scale risk assessment, a well-controlled experimental study in humans was needed.”

Participants were given doses ranging from 2–6.2 mg of JWH-018 – a synthetic cannabinoid four-to-five times as potent as THC – or a placebo. A test of subjective experience was performed and participants were subsequently classified as “responders” or “nonresponders”. Among responders, serum concentrations of JWH-018 were higher, reaction times were slower, and levels of confusion, amnesia, dissociation, derealization and depersonalization were higher. In terms of physical effects, both heart rate and blood pressure were increased following administration of JWH-018 versus placebo. There was substantial variability in the subjective responses of participants, with some suffering impairment even at low doses.

Theunissen says, “We have been able to show how concentrations of the drug relate to the behavioral effect, which is valuable information for their risk assessment.” Yet, the outcomes of the study are likely an underestimation of the real-world effects of synthetic cannabinoids, especially for those using smoking mixtures. “These usually contain a mixture of different synthetic cannabinoids, with much higher potencies than used in this study,” says Theunissen. Therefore, Theunissen believes similar studies with newer and more potent synthetic cannabinoids are needed to form a complete picture of their effects.

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  1. EL Theunissen et al., “Neurocognition and subjective experience following acute doses of the synthetic cannabinoid jwh-018: responders versus nonresponders,” Cannabis Cannabinoid Res, 4, Online ahead of print (2019). DOI: 10.1089/can.2018.0047

About the Author

Matthew Hallam

I've always wanted a career in which I could practice my creativity, even when I worked on the assembly line in a fish factory. At one time, I channeled this need into dance, drawing, poetry and fiction, and I still do most of these things. But, following completion of my MSc(Res) in Translational Oncology and time working in labs and as a Medical Writer for major pharmaceutical companies, I'm happy to find myself in a career that allows me to combine my creative side with my scientific mind as the Deputy Editor of The Analytical Scientist.

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