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Synthetic pot linked to possible kidney damage in CDC report

Federal researchers have linked marijuana's synthetic counterpart to serious kidney damage.
Federal researchers have linked marijuana's synthetic counterpart to serious kidney damage.
Pablo Porciuncula/AFP/Getty Images

In its relatively short time in the public eye, synthetic pot has gained a fair amount of notoriety – and not really the good kind.

For one, there was the case of 17-year-old Emily Bauer, who ended up in the intensive care unit after allegedly buying and smoking a form of the stuff she and some friends bought at a gas station in early December.

Then there was the report that showed that synthetic pot was a factor in more than 11,400 emergency room visits in 2010.

And now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say smoking synthetic marijuana may be linked to serious kidney damage.

What is synthetic pot?

Simply put, the synthetic form of weed is "one isolated part of the chemical structure of the cannabis plant."

That's according to Allan St. Pierre, the executive director of NORML, which advocates for the repeal of laws that prohibit marijuana. He told KPCC last March that synthetic pot tends to be "much more potent," and in the case of human consumption, has a "largely unknown effect."

How much more potent is cannabis' not-so-natural cousin? St. Pierre said Southern California's best dispensaries will have marijuana that's 27 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the active ingredient in the drug. But people who smoke synthetic marijuana are looking at THC levels between 75 and 80 percent.

That can be dangerous, he said.

But that doesn't seem to bother the 11.3 percent of high school seniors who reported using synthetic pot at least once over the previous year. It does bother Dr. Sean Nordt, though, who's the director of toxicology in the department of emergency medicine at L.A. County-USC Medical Center. He's more worried about the synthetic form of the drug than he is its natural counterpart.

"Any time a new drug hits the street, there's a learning curve," he told KPCC in December. "People have to learn how to smoke and how to use it."

In the meantime, users will deal with the prolonged highs, potential psychiatric problems and even seizures.

"Everyone knows people smoking marijuana can feel paranoid – that's amplified with [synthetic marijuana]," he said in December.

Kidney damage

The CDC's most recent findings seem to lend yet more credence to Nordt's worries.

The agency details how in March 2012, Natrona County, Wyo. reported to the state health department that three patients had been hospitalized for "unexplained acute kidney injury" – and that all three had reported recently smoking synthetic marijuana. Following an investigation that involved six states, Wyoming health officials discovered 16 cases of kidney injury that occurred after a patient had smoked synthetic pot.

While no single synthetic marijuana ingredient explained all 16 cases, researchers did identify one compound known as XLR-11 in several patients. The closest the CDC could come to a conclusion:

"Public health practitioners, poison center staff members, and clinicians should be aware of the potential for renal [kidney-related] or other unusual toxicities in users of [synthetic marijuana] and should ask about [synthetic marijuana use] in cases of unexplained [acute kidney injury]."