Why ‘synthetic marijuana’ is so addictive and dangerous

It’s so different from the real stuff, it shouldn’t even be called ‘marijuana.’

May 9, 2018
Why Is 'Synthetic Marijuana' So Addictive And Dangerous?

Synthetic Marijuana, Or K2, Use On The Rise In New York City
NEW YORK, NY – AUGUST 28: A man is consoled as paramedics take him to the hospital for what is thought to be an overdose of K2 or ‘Spice’, a synthetic marijuana drug, along a street in East Harlem on August 28, 2015 in New York City. New York, along with other cities, is experiencing a deadly epidemic of synthetic marijuana usage including varieties known as K2 or ‘Spice’ which can cause extreme reactions in some users. According to New York’s health department, more than 120 people visited an emergency room in the city in just one week in April. While the state banned the ingredients used to make K2 in 2012, distributors have switched to other ingredients and names in an attempt to circumvent the law. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

What is popularly known as “synthetic marijuana” contains none of the natural cannabinoids found in the real thing.

That dirty little secret is one reason synthetic marijuana probably shouldn’t be referred to as “marijuana” at all. Make no mistake about it: the high is very different from actual cannabis, as are the potential dangers.

Synthetic cannabinoid analogs are often known as “full agonists” for the CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors in the brain. THC and the rest of the natural cannabinoids found in marijuana, on the other hand, are only partial agonists. What this means, when it comes to effects, is that synthetic cannabinoids have greatly exaggerated effects compared to cannabis.

This also means synthetic marijuana lends itself much more readily to abuse than real weed. (As one recovering “K2” user cogently put it, “This stuff is more like crack than weed.”) And, unfortunately, it also means that synthetic marijuana—unlike the real stuff—can actually kill you.

Because of the much greater degree of cannabinoid receptor activation, the brain and body require longer to return to homeostasis (balance) after using synthetic marijuana. Rapid, “cold turkey” discontinuation of heavy synthetic cannabinoid use can result in seizures, nausea, anxiety, and panic attacks. Fortunately, real cannabis, as a partial CB1 agonist, can ease the process of quitting synthetic cannabinoids.

Untitled 1 Manhattans District Attorney Will No Longer Prosecute Low Level Cannabis Crimes
Synthetic Marijuana, Or K2, Use On The Rise In New York City
NEW YORK, NY – AUGUST 05: A man smokes K2 or ‘Spice’, a synthetic marijuana drug, along a street in East Harlem on August 5, 2015 in New York City. New York, along with other cities, is experiencing a deadly epidemic of synthetic marijuana usage including varieties known as K2 or ‘Spice’ which can cause extreme reactions in some users. According to New York’s health department, more than 120 people visited an emergency room in the city in just one week in April. While the state banned the ingredients used to make K2 in 2012, distributors have switched to other ingredients and names in an attempt to circumvent the law. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Having too much synthetic marijuana is very different from having too much real cannabis.

Overindulgence in cannabis is normally associated with effects like sleepiness, silliness, and, perhaps, paranoia. These effects typically subside within hours.

People who smoke synthetic marijuana heavily, on the other hand, can come off almost like tweakers (methamphetamine abusers). The only way synthetic marijuana is a good idea is if getting sweaty, agitated, jumpy, and even angry is your idea of a good time.

Synthetic marijuana has no real quality control.

Since it’s made in sketchy labs, synthetic marijuana can be wildly inconsistent. Manufacturers—mostly located in Asia—just choose any vaguely herb-like substance and spray it with psychoactive chemicals (synthetic cannabinoids). Eighty-four new synthetic cannabinoids were identified by the National Forensic Laboratory System in 2015 alone. For comparison, only two had been identified in 2009.

There’s no way of knowing for sure exactly which synthetic cannabinoids you’re getting either. What you buy tomorrow, even if it’s the same “brand name,” can be different than what you bought today.

GettyImages 485586170 Manhattans District Attorney Will No Longer Prosecute Low Level Cannabis Crimes
Synthetic Marijuana, Or K2, Use On The Rise In New York City
NEW YORK, NY – AUGUST 28: Two men who are high on K2 or ‘Spice’, a synthetic marijuana drug, sleep along a street in East Harlem on August 28, 2015 in New York City. New York, along with other cities, is experiencing a deadly epidemic of synthetic marijuana usage including varieties known as K2 or ‘Spice’ which can cause extreme reactions in some users. According to New York’s health department, more than 120 people visited an emergency room in the city in just one week in April. While the state banned the ingredients used to make K2 in 2012, distributors have switched to other ingredients and names in an attempt to circumvent the law. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

As the laws against synthetic cannabinoids evolve so do the products.

Manufacturers slightly alter the synthetics to get around new laws being written. And the new chemicals can have differences in their effects. All this without, of course, any sort of meaningful testing.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the manufacturing and packaging of synthetic marijuana occurs “without pharmaceutical grade chemical purity standards.” Additionally, manufacturers are “ignoring any control mechanisms to prevent contamination or to ensure a consistent, uniform concentration of the powerful and dangerous drug in each package,” according to the DEA.

Recent headlines have been a stark reminder that using synthetic marijuana is a form of Russian roulette. Tainted Spice in Illinois has now resulted in four deaths and at least 122 cases of internal bleeding. A batch of synthetic marijuana had apparently been tainted with brodifacoum, a potent anticoagulant used in rat poison.

 

May 9, 2018