By Patrick Butler--

Guardian/Mixmag survey results appear to back up concerns in the US media over risks associated with synthetic cannabis

Synthetic cannabis is rated as more harmful than natural weed, and less likely to deliver pleasurable highs, according to one of the biggest surveys of current drug user experience ever conducted.

Users who had tried synthetic cannabis rated it as more likely to deliver "negative effects" while high. It was rated more likely to induce feelings of paranoia, and was more harmful on the lungs.

A significant number of synthetic cannabis users reported that they had sought emergency medical help after using the drug. The most common presentation was panic and anxiety, followed by paranoia, breathing difficulties, "feeling scared," sweatiness, chest pain, and "extreme agitation." Asked which form of cannabis they would choose to use, having tried both kinds, 93% of respondents opted for natural weed.

The survey comes in the wake of speculation that the actor Demi Moore had been using synthetic cannabis, also known as K2 or Spice, when she was hospitalised after experiencing convulsions in January.

The survey results appear to back up concerns in the US media over the harmful effects and risks associated with the use of synthetic cannabis preparations.

The findings emerged from the Guardian/Mixmag survey, published on Thursday, which analysed the attitudes and experiences of 15,500 drug users world wide. Half the respondents were from the UK, and 3,400 from the US. The online survey asked a range of detailed questions about what drugs they used, how pleasurable and harmful they rated them, and what the health and legal consequences were.

The survey also revealed that:

• The legal consequences of being busted for possession of small amounts of drugs are strikingly more severe in the US than the UK, where users are much less likely to be criminalised for carrying drugs for personal use.

• Use of legally prescribed medications by drug users seeking a mood-altering high are prevalent in the US, with many drug users reporting that they acquire these substances from friends.

According to Global Drug Survey, a UK-based independent drug use data exchange which designed and conducted the survey, over 200 synthetic cannabinoids [correct] of varying branding and potency have emerged as potential alternative to natural weed in the last three years. They are typically sprayed on innocuous "herbal carrier" mixtures and sold as smoking blends or incense. Some have been banned by the authorities, but several brands are legal in the US.

It is thought that synthetic cannabis – which does not show up in urine tests and cannot be detected by sniffer dogs – is likely to be more prevalent in areas where law enforcement agencies have punitive approach to cannabis use.

Eight hundred and dfity drug users worldwide told the Guardian/Mixmag survey they had tried synthetic cannabis – over half of them US residents.

Dr Adam Winstock, a London-based consultant addictions psychiatrist and director of Global Drug Survey said although the numbers reporting that they sought medical treatment after synthetic cannabis use appeared relatively small – 2.5% of respondents – it was likely to a much higher proportion than to presenting with symptoms connected to natural cannabis use.

He said: "It's difficult to crack down on synthetic cannabinoids in terms of regulation. We should be honest and say most people do not like it, and a lot of people prefer the natural stuff. Public health interventions in the US may need to focus on good honest education as much as regulation."

Global Drug Survey has created a drugs meter phone and online app which enables users to measure their drug and alcohol use against that of other drug users.

The survey revealed that 8% of US respondents had been stopped and searched by police for drugs in the last 12 months.

Of those subsequently busted for possesion of cannabis, 29% were let off with no formal action taken, 8% received a police caution and 25% received a fine or community service after a court appearance. Some 9% reported that they went to jail.

Their experience contrasts strikingly with UK respondents, where half busted for carrying small amounts of cannabis said they received an informal "telling off" from police. Just 8% went to court (1% got off) and less than 1% went to jail.

The differences become more pronounced for cocaine possession. In the US 23% of respondents say they were let off by police, with 15% going to jail. In the UK the respective figures for cocaine were 40% and 3%. For MDMA, 36% of US respondents were let off, and 36% jailed. In the UK, respondents were more likely to receive a police caution; only 2% went to jail.

Use of prescription medications such as Ritalin, antidepressants, opioid pain killers and sleeping tablets to get high was common, according to US respondents. Although most drug users tended to go to a doctor to get antidepressants, 59% sourced Ritalin from friends, and nearly half sourced sleeping tablets from friends.

Some 3,500 US drug users responded to the survey. The ration of male to female respondents was 70/30. Some 79% said they were heterosexual, 6% classed themselves as homosexual and 13% as bisexual. Nearly three quarters reported that they were working, and over half said they been educated to university degree level. Some 86% classified themseves as white, 8% as black, Asian or mixed.

In common with UK respondents, the drugs most used by US respondents were, in order of prevalence: alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, MDMA and cocaine. Mephedrone is less commonly used in the US than it is in the UK with less than 1% having tried in the past month (7% in the UK).

US survey respondents – like their UK contemporaries – also reported high levels of happiness, healthiness, safety, and satsifaction with their standard of living and personal relationships.

© Guardian News and Media 2012