Cuomo May Have Overstated the Severity of Synthetic Weed 'Health Emergencies'

Reports of synthetic-marijuana hospitalizations were not totally accurate.
Reports of synthetic-marijuana hospitalizations were not totally accurate.
Photo credit: halseike via Compfight cc

Governor Andrew Cuomo on Friday issued a "health alert" about synthetic cannabinoids, saying in a statement that the drugs had "sent more than 160 patients to the hospital" in the space of a week.

"Synthetic drugs are anything but harmless," Cuomo said, "and this rash of severe health emergencies across the state is direct proof."

It sounded scary. And by Jove, there's nothing like a good drug scare to get those reportorial juices flowing. Whether it's a guy eating some other dude's face off after using bath salts (who actually wasn't on bath salts after all), the horrifying (and mostly imaginary) butt-chugging epidemic, or cat piss, reporters love a new scary drug or intoxication trend. The scarier the better.

And synthetic pot has become a favorite target for both public officials and hysteria-hungry journalists. Marketed under the monikers "K2" or "Spice" (or any number of other stupid names), products containing "synthetic cannabinoids" have been gaining popularity for at least the last decade.

Reacting to Cuomo's announcement, the Daily News blared that "synthetic marijuana use has hospitalized more than 160 people," while CNN called it a "rash of hospitalizations."

But as it turns out, those headlines may have been a bit overstated.

What Cuomo called "hospitalizations" for this rash of "severe health emergencies," the New York City Health Department called "emergency department visits." That's a big difference. In an email, the department told the Voice that actually, the "majority of patients were discharged," meaning they were not, in fact, hospitalized. Only "a few" were actually admitted. In other words, the patients may have thought they were having medical emergencies when, in fact, they were not.

Common side effects of synthetic cannabinoids include anxiety and rapid heart rate. It's the kind of thing that might make you feel like you're dying, because "time is going by really really really really slow."

So a more accurate headline might have been "160 People Thought Synthetic Pot was Making Them Sick, but It Wasn't." Or "160 People Are Now Super-Double Grounded."

States have been cracking down on the sale of synthetic cannabinoids — originally created as research chemicals and never intended for human consumption — for several years. New York outlawed imitation marijuana in 2012, and the Drug Enforcement Agency added some of the most common iterations of the drugs' active ingredients to its list of prohibited chemicals in 2011. But, somehow, making these drugs illegal did not banish them from the face of the earth. Surprised?

Hopefully it goes without saying that synthetic pot is lame and you shouldn't do it (and also stay in school, kids). There have been some serious medical problems and even a death linked to the drug in other areas.

There is no telling what's included in the stuff. It's literally a bunch of ground-up herbs sprayed with various chemicals that are structurally similar to, but definitely are not, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active chemical found in cannabis.

Prior to being banned, most brands of Spice were using then-legal compounds JWH-018 and JWH-073 — two cannabinoids developed in the 1990s for medical research. But as the government has gone after those "original" synthetics, shady manufacturers have started sticking all manner of nasty shit into their mixtures. And even the original chemicals have never been tested for human consumption. Even the man who created the most widely used variety of synthetic weed, Clemson University researcher John W. Hoffman, has urged people not to smoke the stuff. And he probably knows best. He created the compounds for entirely different purposes, to help learn more about conditions like osteoporosis. (Hoffman was bummed when the chemicals he created became popular as recreational drugs, and he has since called for the legalization of marijuana.)

Spice also reportedly tastes like ass and doesn't get you all that high, per some Gothamist staffers who tried it a few years ago.

And let's be honest...this is New York City. If you can't find actual weed here, you need to get out more. And the only thing good ol' fashioned cannabis leads to, as we know, is rampant necking at the local soda fountain and/or jazz dancing. Also probably communism.

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