Civil Litigation of Damages Caused by Use of Synthetic Marijuana

TASA ID: 501


The last five years have witnessed an exponential growth in the use of a new group of illegal drugs known collectively as synthetic marijuana.  Hospital emergency rooms are seeing a wave of serious health problems including permanent damage to the lungs, kidneys, and hearts of users, severe psychotic episodes requiring extended mental health care, and other substantial damage to users.  There are a number of unique aspects of the synthetic marijuana problem which make recovery of damages in civil litigation, including damages caused to innocent victims by criminal acts of those under the influence, much more likely than with common street drugs such as heroin.

Nature of The Drug

The active ingredient in synthetic marijuana can be any one of over 400 synthetic cannabinoids which act on the same receptors in the brain and are intended to produce similar effects as marijuana.  However, these chemicals often create more intense highs than natural, plant produced marijuana.  Compounding this effect is a very inexact manufacturing process.

The final product is produced by mixing any chopped leafy plant material with the pure drug and a second chemical which binds the active ingredient to the plant material.  Acetone is normally used as a binder.  The ingredients are usually mixed in a large drum - cement mixers are ideal for this purpose.  

Unlike the manufacturing process of heroin or cocaine, where a reasonably skilled chemist can produce batches of consistent potency each time, the turning of ingredients in a drum frequently results in unequal distribution of the active ingredient across the entire batch.  Thus, one part of the finished product may contain X amount of synthetic cannabinoid, while another section of the same production run has 100X amount.
Unlike heroin and other street drugs, where the person who overdoses is often an experienced user seeking an ever greater high, the individual who experiences a serious health problem or commits a violent crime after using synthetic marijuana may be a first time user.  The extreme negative effect may be due to that unlucky partaker inadvertently getting a more concentrated dose, or to their body’s individualized reaction to the chemical.

Marketing Channels

Another major distinction which impacts potential litigation is that synthetic cannabinoids are typically sold in convenience stores, gas stations, and other small retail outlets.  The packaging often claims they are “legal” and “safe” versions of marijuana.  The sellers are more representative of ordinary business owners, albeit those who have crossed the line into criminal behavior, than of the stereotypical narcotics dealer.

The nature of the drugs’ distributors is what makes damages in these instances much more likely to be recoverable in civil litigation.  First, the sellers are not as difficult to locate.  Second, they have tangible assets that can be located- their financial behavior is more typical of business people than street drug dealers.  Third, their assets are often in the form of bank deposits, securities accounts, real estate and the ownership of legitimate businesses, and thus assets that can be converted to cash (or already are).  They may have liability insurance that covers their bad actions.  In addition to purveying an illegal product, the sales may have an element of fraud to them as well, due to the representations of safety and legality.  Finally, because the drugs are sold in retail establishments open to the public, minors have easy access to them.


Attorneys who represent families that have had a member die or been seriously harmed by synthetic marijuana, or have clients who have been harmed in vehicular accidents caused by this drug, or otherwise harmed by a user under the influence, should consider whether litigation is appropriate and viable to secure compensation for the victims.

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA.
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