Risks of synthetic cannabis

The health effects from synthetic cannabinoids (known as Synnies, synthetic cannabis, Spice, Kronic) can be unpredictable, and potentially deadly.

Synthetic cannabinoids refers to untested chemicals made in labs, mostly in China, that are then sprayed onto random plant material, usually a leaf called damiana here in New Zealand. They target the cannabinoid receptors in the brain like cannabis, but can be more toxic.

Synnies have been the most lethal form of illicit substances in NZ in recent years, having been implicated in at least 70 deaths. While often used as an alternative to cannabis, these man-made chemicals can cause serious side effects that are very different to actual cannabis.

In June 2020, High Alert issued a notification about the synthetic cannabinoid MDMB-4en-PINACA. This is an analogue of 5F-ADB, a strain of synthetic cannabinoid which along with AMB-FUBINACA was responsible for the majority of synthetic cannabinoid deaths in 2017-2018.

In September 2020, High Alert issued another notification for the detection of AMB-FUBINACA, followed by a notification in October for serious harm incidents in Taranaki linked to synthetic cannabinoids.

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Why is it so dangerous?

One of the big issues is there’s no way to know which of the many synthetic cannabinoids has actually been applied to the plant material. There are no standards for making, packaging or selling synthetic cannabinoids so the type of chemical, and the dose applied, could be very different from the last batch, even if packaged the same or bought off the same person.

A packet may also include more than one synthetic cannabinoid or other types of drugs, including harmful synthetic cathinones (bath salts), leading to unpredictable and harmful results.

What are the effects?

While effects can include an elevated mood and a sense of relaxation, synthetic cannabinoids can make someone angry and aggressive. Other common side effects can include:

  • Agitation, and irritability
  • Confusion, or problems concentrating
  • Anxiety, negative impact on mental health
  • Hallucinations, delusions or psychosis
  • Dizziness, and fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures

Synnies are also very addictive, and the comedowns can be pretty rough. Withdrawal can last for days or weeks depending on how much and how often the drug was used.

Other health problems can also develop depending on the type of synthetic cannabinoid used, the dose, and how long it has been used for. These can include:

  • Breathing problems
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Rapid heart rate, heart attack, high blood pressure, and stroke
  • Kidney failure
  • Muscle damage

You can learn more about synthetic cannabinoids, and staying safe, through the New Zealand Drug Foundation.

What to do in an emergency

If you or someone you know feels unwell after using synthetic cannabinoids, get medical help immediately. If someone falls unconscious after smoking synthetic cannabinoids:

  • 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 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.

If you’re worried about your own drinking or drug taking, you can 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.

You can also chat to the Alcohol Drug Helpline team online through the website, or:

  • Call the Māori Line on 0800 787 798 for advice and referral to kaupapa Māori services.
  • Call the Pasifika Line on 0800 787 799 for advice and referral to services developed for Pacific people.
  • Call the Youth Line on 0800 787 984 for advice and referral to services for young people.