Risks of synthetic cannabis

We are seeing a trend of increased harm from synthetic cannabinoids across the country. Why is this happening and what can you do to reduce the risks?

Synthetic cannabinoids (aka synnies, synthetic cannabis, Spice, Kronic) are a group of substances that mimic the psychoactive properties of THC, the main psychoactive chemical in cannabis. Synthetic cannabinoids are powdered chemicals that are usually mixed with solvents and sprayed onto herbs.

In recent months, High Alert has seen an increase in harm linked to synthetic cannabinoid use. This has included serious harm requiring hospitalisation. Testing suggests the synthetic cannabinoid MDMB-4en-PINACA is likely responsible for this harm. MDMB-4en-PINACA is a potent synthetic cannabinoid and has been linked to serious harm including deaths both internationally and in New Zealand.

Since late 2021, High Alert has identified relatively low levels of synthetic cannabinoid harm. We believe this has been due to the ban on the production of these substances in China that has affected supply. However, the recent harms suggest an increasing prevalence again in New Zealand. It is possible that higher concentrations are now being applied to plant material.

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What are the risks of synthetic cannabinoids

One of the risks with smoking synthetic cannabinoids is that people may not know which of the many synthetic cannabinoids is actually on the plant material they bought. It is important to keep in mind that there are many different types of synthetic cannabinoids, and while they share many effects, there are also lots of differences between them. Some synthetic cannabinoids like MDMB-4en-PINACA and AMB-FUBINACA are much more likely to cause serious harm or death than others.

Another risk is that doses can vary. One batch can be very different from the last, even if bought off the same person. There can also be a difference in the same batch because of how it was mixed. A batch may also include more than one synthetic cannabinoid.

Remember, people’s bodies process drugs differently so the response may vary from one person to the next . How fast the effects come on, how long they last, and the type of response depends on what is taken, how it is taken and how your body processes it.

Synthetic cannabinoids can have unpredictable effects.

Instead of providing someone with a chill buzz, synthetic cannabinoids can cause unwanted and unpleasant effects, including feelings of anger and aggression. They can also cause anxiety, and negatively impact mental health.

There is no safe way to use synthetic cannabinoids, but if you are going to, it is good to consider the following:

  • Try very small amounts first to try and gauge the effects and strength. Increase dose amounts slowly and wait for the full effect before having more.
  • Be aware that the chemicals are often unevenly spread. This means one dose from the same baggie can be much stronger than another.
  • Consider where and who you use with, as this can affect the experience you have. Also, avoid using alone. Have a sober buddy, so they can respond if someone has a bad reaction, ‘drops’ or loses consciousness.
  • Consider how the powder is taken. Do not take it without a mixer or via a bong or pipe as this can increase the risk of an overdose or bad reaction. Avoid mixing with alcohol or other substances as this can increase harmful side effects or overdose.
  • Allow time for your mind and body to recover, so limit use to occasionally.
  • Because doses and contents may vary, and synthetic cannabinoids are new and constantly changing substances, consider attending a drug checking clinic for harm reduction advice. These are free, legal and completely confidential, and held regularly across the country. You can find a calendar of upcoming checking clinics here.

What to do in an emergency

If someone falls unconscious after smoking synthetic cannabinoids, they could die.

  • Ask loudly if they’re ok. Shake them gently.
  • If they aren’t responsive, dial 111 and ask for an ambulance.
  • Check they’re breathing and if so, place them in a stable side position. If they aren’t breathing, start chest compressions.
  • People can often be very out of it after using synthetic cannabinoids. They may collapse or “drop”, foam at the mouth or experience temporary paralysis. Place them in a stable side position if possible and continuously monitor breathing.

Always call an ambulance if someone:

  • is unconscious;
  • stops breathing;
  • has a seizure;
  • is extremely agitated for longer than 15 minutes;
  • has chest pain or breathing difficulties for longer than 5 minutes.

Keep up to date with the latest information about dangerous synnies in NZ by signing up to our High Alert mailing list . We’ll let you know when situations change or if there are particularly dangerous batches of synthetic cannabinoids to be aware of. You can also report any unusual effects you experience from synnies here.

More information on synthetic cannabinoids, including managing comedowns, can be found here on The Level.

Are you concerned about your own drinking or drug taking? Reach out to the Alcohol Drug Helpline on 0800 787 797, or text 8681. You'll be able to speak with a trained counsellor who can provide you with helpful information, insight and support. They’re available 24/7, all calls are free and confidential.