Synthetic cannabinoid-related deaths in England, 2012-2019

Pruntha Yoganathan, Hugh CLaridge, Lucy Chester, Amir Englund, Nicola Kalk, Caroline Copeland

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Aim: To identify drug-related death trends associated with synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists (SCRAs) reported to the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths (NPSAD) from England. Design: Case reports from NPSAD (England) where a SCRA was detected in post-mortem tissue(s) and/or implicated in the death were extracted, analysed, and compared against non-SCRA-related deaths that occurred over the same time period (2012-2019). Findings: 165 death SCRA-related reports were extracted, with 18 different SCRAs detected. Following the first death in 2012, a subsequent sharp increase in reporting is evident. Acute SCRA use was the underlying cause of death in the majority of cases (75.8%) with cardiorespiratory complications the most frequently cited underlying physiological cause (13.4%). SCRA users were predominantly found dead (68.6%), with a large proportion of those witnessed becoming unresponsive described as suddenly collapsing (81.6%). Psychoactive polydrug use was detected in 90.3% of cases, with alcohol the most commonly co-detected (50.3%), followed by opioids (42.2%), benzodiazepines/Z-drugs (32.1%), stimulants (32.1%, [28.5% cocaine]), and cannabis (24.8%). Compared to all non-SCRA-related NPSAD deaths occurring over the same time period, SCRA-related decedents were more predominantly male (90.3% vs 72.0%; p<0.01), and lived in more deprived areas (p<0.01). Whilst a comparatively significant proportion of decedents were homeless (19.4% vs 4.1%), living in a hostel (13.3% vs. 2.3%) or in prison (4.9% vs 0.2%) at time of death (all p<0.01), the greatest majority of SCRA-related decedents were living in private residential accommodations (57.6%). Conclusions: This is the largest dataset regarding SCRA-related mortalities reported to date. Reporting of SCRA-related deaths in England have increased considerably, with polydrug use a specific concern. Lack of effective deterrents to SCRA use under current UK legislation, compounded by limited knowledge regarding the physiological impacts of SCRA consumption and their interaction with other co-administered substances are contributory factors to the occurrence of SCRA-related mortalities in an increasingly deprived demographic.
Original languageEnglish
JournalCannabis and cannabinoid research
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 24 Feb 2021


  • Synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonist
  • Spice
  • Cannabinoid
  • drug-related deaths
  • Substance abuse
  • novel psychoactive substance


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