Fatal overdose from synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones in Japan: demographics and autopsy findings

Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 2016 Sep;42(5):520-529. doi: 10.3109/00952990.2016.1172594. Epub 2016 Jun 9.


Background: Sixty-one autopsy cases involving cathinones and/or cannabinoids (synthetic cathinones/cannabinoids) use have been reported. However, little is known about the demographics and autopsy findings in fatal synthetic cathinones/cannabinoids users.

Objectives: To elucidate demographic and autopsy findings (i.e. major organ pathology and causes of death) in synthetic cathinones/cannabinoids cases.

Methods: We reviewed forensic autopsy reports in Department of Legal Medicine of Tokyo Women's Medical University (Tokyo, Japan) between 2011 and 2015 (a total of 359). We compared demographic and autopsy findings between synthetic cathinones/cannabinoids and methamphetamine cases (as control subjects).

Results: There were 12 synthetic cathinones/cannabinoids cases and 10 methamphetamine cases. Synthetic cathinones/cannabinoids users were significantly younger than methamphetamine users (p < 0.01), and there were no cases that used both synthetic cathinones/cannabinoids and methamphetamine. Acute intoxication and cardiac ischemia were the two most prominent causes of death in both synthetic cathinones/cannabinoids users and methamphetamine users. Excited delirium syndrome and pulmonary aspiration were found only in synthetic cathinones/cannabinoids cases.

Conclusions: The populations of synthetic cathinones/cannabinoids and methamphetamine users who died of an overdose are different in Japan. Acute intoxication, cardiac ischemia, excited delirium syndrome, pulmonary aspiration, and drowning are the major autopsy findings in synthetic cathinones/cannabinoids-related death. Clinicians shuld be aware of these potentially fatal complications in the medical management of synthetic cathinones/cannabinoids users.

Keywords: Synthetic drug; acute intoxication; autopsy; cardiac ischemia; drug abusers; excited delirium syndrome; methamphetamine; pulmonary aspiration.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alkaloids / poisoning*
  • Cannabinoids / poisoning*
  • Cause of Death
  • Demography
  • Drug Overdose / mortality*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Japan / epidemiology
  • Male
  • Methamphetamine / poisoning
  • Middle Aged
  • Propiophenones / poisoning*
  • Young Adult


  • Alkaloids
  • Cannabinoids
  • Propiophenones
  • Methamphetamine
  • cathinone