What is Synthetic Cannabis?

On April 20, 2012, police in Cozad, Nebraska responded to a 911 call from a teenaged girl stating that a man was trying to break into her family home.  When they arrived, they found 46-year-old Vidal Sarimento in the bathtub.  He had entered the home, terrorized the girl who had barricaded herself in her bedroom, and helped himself to orange juice from the refrigerator before falling asleep in the tub.   After being taken to the Dawson County Jail, Sarimento became agitated while taking a shower.  Three deputies were need to subdue him and one required medical treatment afterward.

Charged with burglary, stalking a child under sixteen years of age, false imprisonment, and assault, Sarimento was held over for a psychiatric evaluation.   He was later found incompetent and treated for paranoid delusions and auditory hallucinations.    According to forensic psychiatrist, Y. Scott Moore, who examined Sarimento, his psychotic symptoms appeared to be linked to his ingesting synthetic cannabis.   While it is not known how much synthetic cannabis he used or whether it was still in his system at the time of the break-in,  another psychiatrist argued that Sarimento had been psychotic for some time when the break-in occurred and that the synthemtic cannabis likely contributed to his psychosis.   His condition was stabilized after six months in a regional treatment centre and his lawyer asked for the charges against him to be dismissed on the grounds of insanity.   He has since been released.

Also known as "K2" and "Spice", synthetic cannabis is a psychoactive designer drug intended to mimic the effects of THC.   Available from Internet distributors, symptoms linked to the drug include psychosis, agitation, convulsions, vomiting, and dependency.   People with previous psychiatric problems or a family history of mental illness appear at risk of prolonged psychotic symptoms after taking the drug.   Given that synthetic cannabis does not cause a positive drug test the way that cannabis or other drugs would, it remains a popular choice for recreational drug use.   There are currently more than 450 synthetic cannabinoid products available online with many sites billing it as "a legal spice that can be smoked." 

Though legal in some jurisdictions, many U.S. states have passed laws banning its sale and distribution.   Synthetic cannabis gained international recognition after the suicide of 18-year-old David Mitchell Rozga of Indianola, Iowa in 2010.   Rozga had smoked K2 shortly before his suicide and investigators suggested that synthetic cannabis played a role in his death.   The Rozga case has been used by political lobbyists to push for more stringent protections against K2 and other then-legal synthetic drugs.     The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported that emergency room visits across the U.S. due to synthetic cannabis use rose from 13 in 2009 to 567 in the first half of 2010 alone.   It is now the second most-used recreational drug among high school seniors behind marijuana itself and is believed to be far more potent. 

As more high-profile incidents continue to be reported, the danger associated with synthetic cannabis, and the difficulty in cracking down on all the different possible synthetic cannabinoid compounds, means more legal headaches for drug enforcement agencies.


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