The demand for a legal high has caused the development of a plethora of synthetic substances called designer drugs. These drugs are synthesized in clandestine laboratories in an effort to mimic existing recreational drugs.
Black market drug manufacturers create new chemical compounds slightly different from existing drugs and aren’t technically designated as illegal. Then, it’s packaged and sold as innocuous items like plant food, cleaning agents, and the familiar bath salts. Since the drug is not technically illegal to sell and it’s not being sold as a drug for human consumption, it slips into a legal loophole.
As the most popular illicit drug (though it’s legal status is currently shifting), marijuana has seen its fair share of synthetic analogs. Synthetic marijuana is produced and sold for recreational use in legally gray markets. While legislators target designer drugs fairly quickly, the constantly shifting chemical compounds can leave law enforcement and medical communities baffled when a new drug surges in popularity.
Though they are designed to be like marijuana, cannabinoids often cause different and more dangerous adverse effects than the real thing. While naturally occurring cannabis is not known to cause physical addiction, cannabinoids can cause addiction and withdrawal to occur.
Synthetic marijuana is a class of drugs that act on cannabinoid receptors in the body. However, it’s not technically marijuana at all, rather, a chemical that mimics its effects. Natural cannabis contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a psychoactive chemical that acts as a partial agonist on a specific cannabinoid receptor. Synthetic cannabinoids often contain multiple, full agonists which give them similar but more profound effects. Cannabinoid receptors contribute to mood, appetite, memory, and pain.
Synthetic marijuana is also called cannabinoids, fake weed, spice, and K2 when used for recreation. In the early 2000s, marijuana substitutes began showing up on the streets with the claim that it was a mixture of natural herbs. However, it was found that these substances contained synthetic cannabinoids and the first instance of notably prevalent use.
When it’s sold, synthetic marijuana often comes in the form of a leafy green herb that looks similar to natural marijuana. However, the plant material is typically an inert herb with the cannabinoids sprayed onto the vegetation. Users are then able to roll and smoke it as if it were the real thing.
You shouldn’t let the legal status of synthetic marijuana fool you – none of the products we find on the market today are natural. The chemicals that are in synthetic marijuana are produced in laboratories. Synthetic marijuana was created initially to help scientists examine and study the cannabinoid system that naturally occurs in humans. Unfortunately, while their intentions were meant for good, it turned out to be something terrible.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) mentions that the majority of the chemical compounds found in the drug are produced in Asia with no regulations or standards. It is then smuggled into the United States where it is scattered onto plant material, packaged and sold in tobacco shops, convenience stores, or online.
By 2015, the DEA listed 15 different types of synthetic marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance in the Drugs of Abuse resource guide. It places the drug in the same category as crack cocaine, heroin, and marijuana.
The signs and symptoms of synthetic cannabinoid use depend on several variables. The chemical ingredients of designer drugs are difficult to predict. With no method of standardization in black and grey markets, it’s difficult to know what you are about to put in your body. Different cannabinoids may have varying levels of potency. However, most are reported to cause similar effects to natural marijuana, including:
However, synthetic weed is thought to worsen psychosis or induce psychotic episodes. Cannabis produces a naturally occurring antipsychotic drug called cannabidiol that some believe curb its potential psychotic effects. Synthetic cannabis doesn’t contain cannabidiol, which makes its psychotic effects more pronounced.
If someone has developed a dependency on Spice or K2, they may start to exhibit signs typical of addiction and some that are unique to cannabinoids. Signs and symptoms may include:
Users do not typically build up a tolerance to marijuana because it is only a partial agonist; however, use of synthetic full-agonist versions can cause tolerance, dependence, and addiction.
Synthetic marijuana has been proven to be addictive, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and regular users can experience similar withdrawal symptoms to other addictive drugs, as mentioned above. The question that remains, however, does the substance case long-term health effects? The answer to that question is an undeniable yes.
Side effects a user can experience when stopping long-term synthetic marijuana use include:
Other health effects that users can experience from long-term synthetic marijuana use include:
If you develop a physical dependence on synthetic marijuana, the safest and most comfortable way to start treatment is with medical detox. Because of the new and constantly changing nature of designer drugs, synthetic cannabis has not been widely studied.
While it’s not known to cause dangerous withdrawal symptoms, there is still a lot we don’t know about the drug. However, medical detox can keep you as comfortable as possible and respond to any complications from withdrawal.
After you detox, you may still be left with the lingering effects of addiction. Cravings and triggers may drive you to use again as the reward system in your brain continues to carry the imprint the drug made on it. However, through residential treatment with a variety of personalized therapies, you can learn how to resist relapse by avoiding triggers.
As you make progress in treatment, you will require less intensive treatment as you gain more independence. However, it’s important to continue to pursue recovery as you move forward. Support groups, 12-step programs, and alumni programs can help you stay connected to recovery and to people that can help keep you accountable.
Again, there is still much we don’t know about synthetic marijuana. Its long-term effects are a mystery, and we don’t know how the different chemicals might affect humans on a widespread basis. However, there are a few cases that have shown that Spice can be dangerous. For instance, there is at least one death associated with synthetic cannabis overdose. Some extreme symptoms have been documented, including hypertension, hallucinations, and seizures.
Plus, some cannabis is laced with toxic chemicals, like formaldehyde. Since synthetic cannabis is sprayed with unknown chemicals, it can be difficult to know whether or not you are putting dangerous, toxic chemicals in your body.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2013, February 26). Synthetic Marijuana Lands Thousands of Young People in the ER, Especially Young Males. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/infographics/synthetic-marijuana-lands-thousands-young-people-in-er-especially-young-males
Brents, L. K., Reichard, E. E., Zimmerman, S. M., Moran, J. H., Fantegrossi, W. E., & Prather, P. L. (n.d.). Phase I hydroxylated metabolites of the K2 synthetic cannabinoid JWH-018 retain in vitro and in vivo cannabinoid 1 receptor affinity and activity. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3130777/
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National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016, April 07). Synthetic Cannabinoids (K2/Spice). from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/synthetic-cannabinoids-k2spice