Fake weed belongs to a class of substances called synthetic cannabinoids or SCs, designed to mimic the effects of marijuana. The sensations SCs produce are stronger than the ones induced by tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the psychoactive ingredient found in the cannabis plant.
SCs are generically sold as potpourri or incense; although not intended for human consumption, they are often used as recreational drugs, especially by teenagers, who remain oblivious to these compounds' serious health consequences. The potency of SCs can exceed that of THC up to 600 times over.
A study recently published in the journal Pediatrics was the first to look into the addictive effects of SCs. It revealed synthetic marijuana is linked not only to continued use of SCs, but also to alcoholism and violence.
"Given that marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug by high school students in the [United States], having a better understanding of how marijuana use affects future SC use and vice versa is essential for designing effective prevention and intervention programs," said Jeff Temple, senior author and clinical psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
Depressed Teens More Prone To SC Addiction
According to Temple, fake weed's popularity among teenagers is due to easy access, low cost, appealing packaging, and the perceived notion that SCs are not real drugs.
His research involved 964 high school students who were asked to complete surveys on the use of several intoxicating substances, including alcohol, SC, marijuana, and other drugs, as well as any impulsive tendencies, anxiety levels, and depression symptoms. Study participants were called in a year later to answer the same questionnaire.
Results showed depression drives teenagers to continue the use of SCs, increasing the risk of addiction. Even though the study suggests teens don't typically turn to synthetic marijuana out of impulsiveness or anxiety, study authors stress the importance of monitoring all these risk factors "to potentially reduce adolescent use of SCs."
Marijuana Use And Alcoholism
To better understand why teenagers resort to synthetic cannabinoids and how it affects their conduct, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researched whether SCs are associated with other types of harmful behavior, respectively other drug use, alcohol abuse, aggressive demeanor, and sexual imprudence.
This study interpreted data from the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, an anonymous questionnaire administered through the school system to more than 15,000 students in grades nine through 12.
Survey analysis uncovered a third of the teenagers had used marijuana, either as a one-time experience or habitually, with 23 percent of them - almost one in 10 students - also stating they had used the synthetic variant at least once.
Almost all the students who admitted to using SCs also reported having tried marijuana at some point in their life and were shown to be prone to drug use at an earlier age - before turning 13 - than teenagers who only used marijuana.
Violence And Premature Sexuality
Survey answers also determined teenagers indulging in synthetic marijuana exhibited a more risky sexual behavior. Nearly 15 percent of them reported having sexual intercourse before turning 13, as opposed to only 5 percent of adolescents who limited themselves to marijuana and 2 percent of students who never used drugs of any kind.
What is more, 38 percent of SC users declared having had at least four sexual partners, compared with 20 percent of cannabis users and just 3 percent of nonusers.
In addition, results determined teenagers who are partial to SCs also indulge in more drinking and display aggressive tendencies more often than the other two groups. A third of synthetic weed users admitted to carrying a weapon, whereas just 19 percent of marijuana users and 12 percent of nonusers stated the same thing.
Lastly, concerning other risky behaviors, more than half of SC enthusiasts reported having been involved in altercations, and a quarter of them responded "yes" to drinking and driving, compared with nonusers (15 percent and 2 percent, respectively) and weed users (29 percent and 12 percent, respectively).
"The findings indicate that students who report using synthetic marijuana are possibly on a very concerning health trajectory, which is particularly serious given that synthetic marijuana use is relatively common among adolescents," said Heather Clayton, lead researcher and health scientist in the CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health.