Synthetic Cannabinoids: What CDC is doing

CDC team tracks synthetic cannabinoid outbreaks to help keep the public informed and safe.

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Synthetic cannabinoid products usually consist of various man-made chemicals. Users smoke these products, often as an alternative to marijuana, to get a similar high. However, reported side effects from using these products are often serious and can include kidney failure, heart attack, and death. Epidemiologists in CDC’s Health Studies Branch (HSB), who investigate causes and outcomes of diseases caused by chemicals in the environment, respond to outbreaks of synthetic cannabinoid-related illness. HSB scientists also monitor poison center data for clusters of calls related to synthetic cannabinoid use across the country. Read on for some examples of synthetic cannabinoid-related activities led by HSB scientists and about HSB-assisted investigations by state health departments.

CDC helps Mississippi investigate the largest reported outbreak of synthetic cannabinoid-related illnesses

In April 2015, an emergency medicine doctor in Jackson, Mississippi noticed an unusual number of patients who became ill after using synthetic cannabinoids. The Mississippi Department of Public Health, with the support of HSB, investigated over 700 reports of synthetic cannabinoid-related illness, including 11 deaths.

Poison centers see 229% spike in synthetic cannabinoid calls over 6 months in 2015

HSB collaborates with the American Association of Poison Centers (AAPCC) to identify clusters of calls made to poison centers across the United States that could signal a potential public health threat. During January 1–May 31, 2015, HSB and AAPCC identified 3,572 calls related to synthetic cannabinoid exposures, a 229% increase from the same period in 2014.

Rise in Colorado emergency department visits launches investigation associated with synthetic cannabinoids

More than 200 people sought care at several Colorado hospitals for synthetic cannabinoid-related illnesses over a four-week period in the summer of 2013. In response, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) asked CDC’s HSB to help investigate and identify the cause behind so many emergency department visits with similar symptoms.

Wyoming outbreak leads to findings in 6 more states

In March 2012, the Wyoming Department of Health notified CDC of three patients hospitalized for unexplained acute kidney injury, all of whom reported recent use of synthetic cannabinoids. After Wyoming launched an investigation, six additional states reported 16 cases. 

Page last reviewed: August 21, 2017