A team of researchers at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences received a federal grant to study the dangers of synthetic marijuana products.
The $2.7 million grant was provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). It will allow the team to study why the synthetic compounds can be more toxic than natural marijuana.
Paul Prather, Ph. D, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at UAMS, and principal investigator for this grant, says the team consists of seven members from five departments who will study the comprehensive effects of synthetic cannabinoids such as K2 and Spice.
"The way we're approaching this problem is basically from a five-tiered interdisciplinary approach. We're coming at it from all angles, and we believe that to be very unique," comments Prather.
The team will gather information about patients admitted to emergency rooms because of synthetic marijuana use, research the individual cannabinoids and which enzymes they activate, and develop antidotes for the toxic, man-made products. The team will compare the effects of synthetic products to effects of natural marijuana and will study the effects the cannabinoids have in rodents.
Dr. Prather comments that the primary problem with synthetic cannabinoids, often called "legal pot" or "marijuana substitutes," is that they are not safe alternatives to marijuana. These products are marketed to vulnerable populations, including adolescents and veterans, as undetectable substitutes for marijuana, despite their high toxicity.
"The problem is that these [synthetic marijuana products] are marketed as a safe, legal alternative to marijuana," says Prather. "That's the main point of our grant. The K2/Spice products that contain synthetic cannabinoids are not a safe alternative to marijuana."
Dr. Prather says the team will begin to publish results in a few months and will continue to do so for five years in order to keep up with the evolution of the cannabinoid compound. He comments that clandestine chemists often change the chemical structures of existing synthetic marijuana products to comply with current regulations.
The research team is collaborating with a Poison Control Center in New York.
The information the researchers gather will be used to inform regulations for synthetic marijuana products.