The number of calls to US poison centers between January and May this year relating to adverse health effects of synthetic marijuana use soared by almost 230% compared with the same period in 2014, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Between January and May this year, 3.572 calls were made to poison centers in the US relating to adverse health effects of synthetic marijuana.

In addition, the report reveals there was a threefold increase in the number of reported deaths as a result of synthetic marijuana use.

Also referred to as “K2” or “Spice,” synthetic marijuana is a manmade drug designed to mimic the effects of the naturally occurring psychoactive ingredient in marijuana – tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

The drug contains dried, shredded plant material that is sprayed with synthetic chemical additives, aimed at giving the user a “high.”

After marijuana, synthetic cannabinoids are the most widely used drug among high school seniors. A 2012 study from the University of Michigan revealed that 11.3% of high school seniors reported using synthetic marijuana in the past year.

Synthetic marijuana is widely available in retail outlets, marketed as an herbal product. Many active chemicals found in the drug are regulated, but manufacturers often change the formulation as to avoid detection and regulation.

While it is marketed as a “safer” alternative to marijuana, the National Institute on Drug Abuse state synthetic marijuana can be even more potent and may stay active in the body for longer.

The potential health effects of synthetic marijuana include severe paranoia, agitation, anxiety, vomiting, nausea, high blood pressure, tremors, seizures and hallucinations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report reveals that between January and May this year, 3,572 calls related to synthetic marijuana use were made to poison centers in the US, compared with 1,085 calls made in the same period last year – an increase of 229%.

The highest number of calls were made in mid-April, when poison centers received 1,501 reports of adverse health effects from synthetic marijuana use.

The report also reveals that a total of 15 deaths occurred as a result of synthetic marijuana use between January and May this year, compared with five deaths during the same period in 2014 – representing a threefold increase.

The most common adverse health effect reported during the 5-month period was agitation, followed by tachycardia (abnormally fast heart rate), drowsiness or lethargy, vomiting and confusion.

Of the 2,961 calls made in which the user required medical attention, 335 involved a major adverse health effect – defined as “signs or symptoms that are life-threatening or result in substantial residual disability or disfigurement.”

A moderate effect from synthetic marijuana use was reported by 1,407 callers – defined as non-life-threatening symptoms that require treatment – 1,095 callers reported a minor effect and 109 reported no effect.

The CDC say these findings are a cause for concern and indicate that more needs to be done to remove synthetic marijuana from sale. The report authors state:

The increasing number of synthetic cannabinoid variants available, higher toxicity of new variants, and the potentially increased use as indicated by calls to poison centers might suggest that synthetic cannabinoids pose an emerging public health threat.

Multiple other recent outbreaks suggest a need for greater public health surveillance and awareness, targeted public health messaging, and enhanced efforts to remove these products from the market.”

In February, Medical News Today reported on a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry, which linked use of high-potency “skunk-like” cannabis with a fivefold increased risk of psychosis.