Dangerous fake cannabis is creeping into the UK weed market

May 25, 2021

Sales of synthetic cannabinoids being missold as cannabis are on the rise in the UK, presenting a significant health risk to the general public.

Data from the latest WEDINOS newsletter shows alarming evidence that consumers are buying products they believe contain THC, but are actually made up of a number of other substances, including synthetic cannabinoids, nicotine or other drugs.

WEDINOS is a harm reduction project that analyses samples of drugs provided by the public and other participating organisations. During February 2021 an analysis of 37 samples believed to be THC e-liquids used in vapes found that only 26% contained THC or cannabis, while 57% contained some form of synthetic cannabinoid.

Other ingredients included the addictive ingredient in tobacco nicotine, diphenhydramine which is an antihistamine, and cathinone, a stimulant.

chart showing results from thc cart analysis - 57% of thc carts contained 'spice' or SCRAs
Results from the WEDINOS analysis of 37 carts purported to contain THC

Vape carts aren’t the only cannabis substance testing positive for synthetic cannabinoids. Last month a post appeared on a popular cannabis sub-Reddit warning cannabis users that hash was being sold in the UK containing the synthetic cannabinoid MDMB-4en-PINACA.

In the post, the user states “I bought some “lemon haze” Moroccan hash from a reputable vendor… It looks like hash [and] has a very strong lemon smell.

“It fucked me up for a good couple of hours and put me on a massive whitey… I used to be addicted to spice years ago so I knew what it was instantly and managed to calm myself down. If that had been somebody else they would have called for an ambulance immediately.”

The user sent a sample to WEDINOS for analysis and it was confirmed to be a synthetic cannabinoid.

Fake hash containing synthetic cannabinoids sold in the UK

Other consumers haven’t been so lucky. In April the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland issued a warning after several young people became ill vaping what they believed to be genuine cannabis vape carts that contained ‘spice’.

The PHA’s drug and alcohol lead Michael Owen said “We have been alerted to serious issues around young people thinking they’re buying cannabis oil or THC to vape, only to discover that it’s in fact spice. There is no way to know if what you’ve been sold is what you’re actually taking and for some, they’ve found out too late and ended up in hospital after suffering the severe effects of vaping spice.”

A similar warning was issued in Lincolnshire in April when a school pupil became ill after eating edibles he believed to contain cannabis that actually contained synthetic cannabinoids.

Synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists (SCRAs), commonly referred to simply as ‘spice’ are lab-engineered substances designed to mimic the effects of the psychoactive substances found in cannabis. SCRAs found their way onto the UK market as legal highs before being banned by the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act. Originally sold as a legal alternative to cannabis, the effects of SCRAs are nothing like natural cannabis and can be dangerously addictive and damaging to health. SCRAs are often sprayed onto herbal material designed to look like cannabis, but as the above reports show are now finding their way into other cannabis products and being sold under the guise of traditional cannabis, presenting a huge potential health risk. It is estimated that around 30% of adults in the UK have used cannabis, with around 1 in 10 using it on a regular basis.

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