Synthetic cannabinoids are generally more harmful than plant-based marijuana. Many of the adverse reactions to synthetic cannabinoids have been reported to involve dangerous physical symptoms, whereas adverse reactions to natural marijuana typically involve symptoms resembling anxiety and panic, which though worrisome, are not lethal.
In 2012, state public health department officials, poison control centers and CDC researchers identified 16 cases of acute kidney injury related to use of synthetic cannabinoids in six states (Kansas, Oklahoma, Oregon, New York, Rhode Island and Wyoming).
The sudden rise of synthetic cannabinoid related calls to poison control centers, hospitalizations and even instances of fatal reactions has never been seen with marijuana, which has only ever been indirectly associated with drug-related deaths, and never shown to result in a fatal overdose.
Deaths linked to synthetic cannabinoids do not compare to numbers from drugs like heroin and cocaine. While the brief rise in ER visits and poison control center calls did signal a temporary cause for concern (these figures have since gone down), alarmist responses and harsh law enforcement crackdowns often overshadow the need for public education and harm reduction measures and ultimately cause more harm than good.