Increases in synthetic cannabinoids-related harms: Results from a longitudinal web-based content analysis

Int J Drug Policy. 2017 Jun:44:121-129. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2017.05.007. Epub 2017 Jun 1.


Background: Synthetic Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists (SCRA), also known as "K2" or "Spice," have drawn considerable attention due to their potential of abuse and harmful consequences. More research is needed to understand user experiences of SCRA-related effects. We use semi-automated information processing techniques through eDrugTrends platform to examine SCRA-related effects and their variations through a longitudinal content analysis of web-forum data.

Method: English language posts from three drug-focused web-forums were extracted and analyzed between January 1st 2008 and September 30th 2015. Search terms are based on the Drug Use Ontology (DAO) created for this study (189 SCRA-related and 501 effect-related terms). EDrugTrends NLP-based text processing tools were used to extract posts mentioning SCRA and their effects. Generalized linear regression was used to fit restricted cubic spline functions of time to test whether the proportion of drug-related posts that mention SCRA (and no other drug) and the proportion of these "SCRA-only" posts that mention SCRA effects have changed over time, with an adjustment for multiple testing.

Results: 19,052 SCRA-related posts (Bluelight (n=2782), Forum A (n=3882), and Forum B (n=12,388)) posted by 2543 international users were extracted. The most frequently mentioned effects were "getting high" (44.0%), "hallucinations" (10.8%), and "anxiety" (10.2%). The frequency of SCRA-only posts declined steadily over the study period. The proportions of SCRA-only posts mentioning positive effects (e.g., "High" and "Euphoria") steadily decreased, while the proportions of SCRA-only posts mentioning negative effects (e.g., "Anxiety," 'Nausea," "Overdose") increased over the same period.

Conclusion: This study's findings indicate that the proportion of negative effects mentioned in web forum posts and linked to SCRA has increased over time, suggesting that recent generations of SCRA generate more harms. This is also one of the first studies to conduct automated content analysis of web forum data related to illicit drug use.

Keywords: Drug use ontology; NLP text processing; Semantic web; Synthetic cannabinoids; Web-forums.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cannabinoids / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Internet / statistics & numerical data*
  • Internet / trends*
  • Longitudinal Studies


  • Cannabinoids