Calls to poison control centres jumped more than 300 percent from January to April. That includes a 330 percent increase in calls from January 2015 to April 2015, the report from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said.
Synthetic dagga is readily available
Officially known as synthetic cannabinoid and sold under such names as spice and k2, the products are made by spraying psychoactive chemicals onto plant material.
Despite these problems and attempts to have them banned, they remain on the market as herbal products and are readily available, according to Royal Law, author of the new report and an epidemiologist with the CDC.
"These products mimic the active ingredient in marijuana, a synthetic version of which is spayed on plant material and smoked to get a high," Law said. "This is an emerging public health threat."
According to the report, between January 2015 and May 2015, poison centres in 48 states logged almost 3,600 calls related to synthetic marijuana use. During the same period last year, these centres received about 1,100 calls.
Even more surprising is the most recent jump in calls. In April this year, more than 1,500 calls were made to poison control centres, up from about 350 in January 2015.
What's worse, 15 deaths have been reported in 2015, a three-fold increase over the five deaths reported in 2014, the researchers noted.
Most of the people who call poison centres for bad reactions to synthetic marijuana are between 20 and 29 years old, Law said. Also, 81 percent of callers are male, the report said.
Watch: The family of 19 year-old teenager that died of the synthetic marijuana in the U.S
Dramatic increase in calls
Law said that in the U.S. most frequent calls to poison centres about reactions to synthetic marijuana were for agitation, tachycardia (a very fast heartbeat), drowsiness or lethargy, vomiting and confusion. He said the reason for the dramatic increase in calls isn't known.
Although the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has banned some of these products, manufacturers skirt the ban by labelling their products as herbal incense. Some manufacturers have labeled their products "not for human consumption", Law said.
"Even though these products are often marketed as natural and safe, they are not," he said. "We have seen very severe health effects and even deaths."
The findings are in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Dr. Scott Krakower, the assistant unit chief of psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York, said, "It's unclear why these calls are rising."
Krakower said people don't realize that these products aren't benign and can have profound health effects. "They feel these products are harmless or they just don't know about their dangers," he said.
People should be cautious about using these products, he warned. "They can cause severe paranoia, agitation and depression. They are really quite dangerous."
Image: K2 synthetic weed, from Wikimedia Commons
Is it being used in South Africa?
Health24 spoke to SANCA (South African National Council on Alcoholism & Drug Dependence ) Western Cape's spokesperson David Fourie regarding the use of synthetic marijuana in South Africa and while he was unwilling to confirm whether or not it was available, he did mention that it was once used on a trial basis as part of a detox programme.
He confirmed that it was legal and the uncertainty of the registration of the usage was mainly because it was used for a detox regime.
On pro-dagga smokers The Dagga Couple's Facebook page, followers and friends commented on the use of Nitro Grass (one type of synthetic dagga), saying that smoking this synthetic version gives users a bad headache, nausea and a 'bad high'. Most would not use it again.
Writing on MyNews24, member Deon George says that "Synthetic Cannabinoids have proved to be disappointing facsimiles to date and are unnecessary since anyone can actually grow and use Cannabis in all aspects, including medicinally, with just a little effort and learning.
Image: Marijuana plant from Shuttterstock