Synthetic marijuana is a type of drug that mimics the effects of cannabis.
Synthetic marijuana is dried plant matter (such as herbs and spices) that has been sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids, creating a marijuana-like product that can be smoked.
It was once legal, but regulatory agencies worldwide have since cracked down on the products. It is sold under many names, but the most well-known brands are K2 and Spice.
While synthetic marijuana resembles natural marijuana visually, the similarities stop there.
The chemicals are stronger than those found in marijuana, so there is a higher risk of side effects, overdose, and even death. The products are also largely unregulated, meaning the chemical contents are highly unreliable and may affect each person differently.
What Are Synthetic Cannabinoids?
Simply put, synthetic cannabinoids are cannabinoids made in a laboratory.
Cannabinoids are a class of compounds that interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system. There are three main types of cannabinoids: endocannabinoids, phytocannabinoids, and synthetic cannabinoids.
Our body manufactures endocannabinoids, and the marijuana plant produces phytocannabinoids.
While recreational synthetic marijuana is a new craze, synthetic cannabinoids are nothing new. Doctors have been using synthetic cannabinoids such as Marinol (a synthetic form of THC) to treat patients since the 1980s.
However, the cannabinoids used in synthetic marijuana are significantly different from those in natural marijuana. They are thought to be up to hundreds of times more powerful than the cannabinoids in marijuana.
For example, the synthetic cannabinoid HU-210 has 100-800x the binding affinity for CB1 receptors compared to THC.
History of Synthetic Cannabinoids
Synthetic cannabinoids were invented by John W. Huffman, Ph.D, a Harvard graduate and retired Clemson University chemistry professor.
Huffman began his research on cannabinoids in 1984. Over the course of 20 years, Huffman and his team developed more than 450 different synthetic cannabinoids that could mimic the effects of natural marijuana.
The compounds were named for their creator with the initials JWH. Some well-known synthetic cannabinoids include JWH-018 and JWH-133.
Some of these compounds showed the potential to fight brain tumours and non-melanoma skin cancers in mice. However, Huffman’s work eventually caught the attention of people with other plans.
“JWH-018 can be made by a halfway decent undergraduate chemistry major in three steps using commercially available materials,” Huffman says.
“I always had a hunch that someday somebody would say: ‘Hey, let’s try smoking them.’ And lo and behold, that’s what happened,” says Huffman.
People replicated the process of synthesizing the cannabinoids in Huffman’s published papers, and began using them to get high.
“It started in the early 2000s in Europe, and in the U.S., in 2007 or so, we started seeing all kinds of people coming into emergency rooms saying they smoked marijuana, but then they had these really bizarre symptoms that did not correspond with the effects you see with marijuana,” says Dr. Paul L. Prather, a cellular and molecular pharmacologist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS).
Today, most synthetic marijuana is manufactured in China. There are hundreds of names for synthetic marijuana products, including Spice, K2, Black Mamba, Blaze, and Yucatan Fire, among others.
“The promise of a more intense high than cannabis, affordability, easy access, and avoidance of detection in standardized drug tests likely contributes to the growing use of spice,” states a 2012 review.
Risks and Side Effects
Synthetic cannabinoids are not the same as the cannabinoids in marijuana. In fact, they can be up to hundreds of times stronger.
They also interact differently with the endocannabinoid system, meaning their effects on the body may be different.
There is some overlap between the effects of synthetic marijuana and natural cannabis, including elevated mood, relaxation, and changes in perception. However, the effects can be unpredictable, ranging from catatonia to agitation and violence.
The side effects of synthetic marijuana include:
- Severe anxiety and paranoia
- Nausea and vomiting
- Elevated heart rate
- Elevated blood pressure
- Hallucinations and psychosis
- Violent and aggressive behavior
- Suicidal thoughts and behavior
Synthetic marijuana was responsible for over 28,000 emergency room visits in the US in 2011.
Several academic journals have published reports and case studies of adverse reactions to synthetic marijuana products. Experts warn that using synthetic cannabinoids like JWH-018 may cause psychosis in vulnerable individuals.
Synthetic marijuana products are also thought to be addictive, although there is not a lot of research on the matter. The online resource Spice Addiction Support chronicles many people’s experiences with synthetic marijuana addiction.
Synthetic cannabinoids are also known to pose a higher risk of overdose than natural marijuana. In July 2017, over 100 patients were treated for synthetic marijuana overdose in a short span of time.
Lack of Quality Control
Another major safety concern is the lack of manufacturing regulations for synthetic marijuana.
Synthetic marijuana is often manufactured in China, where there are not stringent standards for these products.
One known problem with manufacturing is chemical “hot spots”, where the cannabinoids have been applied unevenly. If one of these spots is smoked, it can result in an unusually high dose.
It’s also often not known exactly what goes into synthetic marijuana. The chemicals can vary from batch to batch, and some people believe that chemical additives are used in the process.
Dr. William E. Fantegrossi is a behavioral pharmacologist at UAMS. “Not only does the amount of the active pharmacological agent change with different batches of drugs, made by different labs, but the active compound itself can change,” he says.
“And there are usually a minimum of three, if not five, different synthetic cannabinoids in a single product,” adds Dr. Prather, also from UAMS.
Synthetic marijuana often contains high quantities of vitamin E, and is often contaminated with an anxiety-producing drug known as clenbuterol.
Is Synthetic Marijuana Legal?
Synthetic marijuana was first produced as a “legal” way to get around the laws on natural marijuana, but it is now illegal in most places.
Many types of synthetic cannabinoids are currently illegal in the US and Canada, but manufacturers are skirting these laws by mislabelling products and creating new chemicals that may not be covered by current laws.
In 2011, some of the most common synthetic cannabinoids — including JWH-018, JWH-073, JWH-200 — and others were scheduled by the US Department of Justice and labelled as Schedule I drugs.
Despite this, synthetic marijuana continues to be sold on the black market, and is readily available online.
Some dealers claim their products are just incense or potpourri, with packages that state “not for human consumption”. Some new products are labelled as “lab certified” and claim to contain only natural herbs — despite still containing synthetic cannabinoids.
Synthetic marijuana maintains its appeal in part because it’s difficult to prove that manufacturing or consuming the product is illegal.
Many people believe that if natural marijuana were legal, people would not use synthetic marijuana.
“I talked to a marijuana provider from California, a doctor, a physician, and he said that in California, that these things are not near the problem they are in the rest of the country simply because they can get marijuana… And marijuana is not nearly as dangerous as these compounds,” says Dr. Huffman.
Synthetic marijuana is dried plant material containing synthetic cannabinoids. These cannabinoids can be hundreds of times more potent than the THC found in natural marijuana.
Due to a lack of regulations, the effects of synthetic marijuana can be difficult to predict. While the effects are similar to natural marijuana, they are often extremely strong.
Many people also experience severe side effects that can land them in the hospital, or worse, dead. The side effects of synthetic marijuana include nausea, hallucinations, severe anxiety, stroke, seizures, and psychosis.
Law enforcement agencies around the world are cracking down on synthetic pot, but crafty manufacturers are always finding ways to skirt the law. Synthetic marijuana remains easily available online.