Synthetic cannabinoids are a type of designer drug that can be dangerous and deadly. This group of drugs includes Spice/K2, the first synthetic marijuana chemicals reported to law enforcement and drug testing labs. Since their first appearance, synthetic cannabinoids have caused tens of thousands of emergency room visits for symptoms like high blood pressure and heart palpitations, excessively high body temperature, and psychotic effects.
Spice and K2 (synthetic marijuana) are one of the first types of cannabinoid designer drugs released into the U.S. After devastating overdoses, hospital visits, and too many deaths, several states in the country have banned Spice.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) designates synthetic cannabinoids as a controlled substance / Schedule I illicit drug, meaning they have high abuse rates and have no medical use. Synthetic cannabinoids go by names on the street like:
- Black Magic
- Fake Marijuana or Fake Weed
Synthetic cannabinoids were originally part of the medical community’s exploration of various receptors in the brain. The purpose was to see if controlled substances, like organic marijuana, could be useful for some medical treatments. Scientists had to learn how receptors in the brain, like cannabinoid receptors, worked. To figure this out, they created several molecules related to the original organic compound. Medical researchers developed 300 chemicals just related to marijuana. Very few were tested on humans.
Once information about these compounds was published, it could be found online. Since the mid-2000s, clandestine drug laboratories have used these compounds to develop intoxicating and dangerous drugs. According to reports, in 2008, a laboratory in Germany found that one of these marijuana-related research chemicals had been found in a harmful drug called Spice. Because the compound was not technically illegal under drug laws in many different countries, including much of Europe and the U.S., it was easy to sell these drugs online and in stores as “incense,” “glass cleaner,” or other chemicals with enticing foil packaging. The packages bore the label, “not for human consumption,” but most people who bought Spice and other synthetic cannabinoids intended to abuse them to get high.
But banning one chemical does not ban all types of synthetic cannabinoids. It’s very easy for manufacturers to create another active ingredient that is technically different from the banned version, even if it produces incredibly similar effects.
The effects of synthetic marijuana can be much stronger than organic marijuana. Synthetic weed is much more potent and puts you at risk for a slew of negative effects. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports this is because synthetic marijuana more strongly binds to your brain’s receptors making health effects riskier and more unpredictable. These may include upsetting hallucinations or paranoia and even erratic, violent behavior. Straight, unlaced organic marijuana typically doesn’t evoke such intensity if taken in small doses.
So, what is spice/K2 exactly? Spice and other synthetic cannabinoids are human-made chemicals with some similarities to organic marijuana compounds. Chemicals in synthetic marijuana are made to mimic the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
- Sprayed onto dried plant material so it looks like organic marijuana.
- Sold as a distilled oil for vaping.
- Added to herbal tea or food and consumed orally
But K2/Spice is not the same as organic THC. These synthetic drugs have very different effects on the brain and body. Mental and emotional side effects associated with synthetic cannabinoids (K2/Spice) include:
- Elevated mood
- Relaxation, leading to sleepiness and passing out
- Altered perception or awareness of surrounding people and objects
- Delusional or disordered thinking
- Feeling detached from reality
- Other psychotic symptoms like paranoia and confusion
- Violent behavior toward oneself or others.
- Suicidal thoughts.
Physical risks and side effects of this psychoactive substance may include:
- Rapid heart rate, leading to heart attack
- Elevated blood pressure
- Vomiting and other gastrointestinal problems
- Breathing problems
- Kidney damage / acute kidney injury
- Muscle damage
Packages of synthetic or fake marijuana might contain other drugs, including fentanyl or synthetic cathinones like bath salts or flakka. In some cases, synthetic marijuana has even been laced with rat poison.
Although there are many severe dangers associated with abusing Spice and related drugs, synthetic cannabinoids continue to proliferate because they are much cheaper than marijuana, even in places with legalized recreational cannabis. If the chemical has not been made illegal, the substance is easy to find in convenience stores, tobacco shops, and other retail outlets. It can even be purchased online.
Because there is no age restriction on synthetic cannabinoids as there is for legalized recreational marijuana, more adolescents and young adults purchase Spice. Ultimately, it’s just easier for virtually everyone to get their hands on Spice and other types of synthetic marijuana.
People who have taken K2/Spice regularly report that they suffered consequences when they tried to stop using it that indicate tolerance and dependence. These side effects are similar to withdrawal symptoms, and may include the following:
- Low energy
- Chest pain
- Heart palpitations / rapid heart rate
- Breathing problems
Similar to most drugs, medical experts believe the severity of withdrawal symptoms is linked with how much synthetic cannabinoid products you abuse and for how long.
Organic marijuana is a very addictive substance, but it rarely causes drug overdoses unless used with another substance. In contrast, synthetic marijuana chemicals like Spice are more likely to cause an overdose than intoxication. They are too potent for many users and can have several negative effects.
Spice and related types of synthetic marijuana are dangerous because the chemicals have never been tested on humans, so the impact of the drug is always unpredictable. They’re also dangerous because there’s no regulated amount in any dose. Synthetic marijuana or fake marijuana can differ from batch to batch. Each package contains a different combination of chemicals and different doses. If one package gave you a mild high, the next one could cause you to overdose.
For example, some compounds are 800 times more potent than natural cannabis. Knowing which types of synthetic marijuana are more potent than others is impossible since there is no regulation when they are created and distributed. This means you can quickly overdose and die if you consume Spice or a related synthetic drug.
Some medical researchers believe that synthetic cannabinoids like Spice have longer half-lives than organic marijuana. The chemical’s active time in the brain is longer, causing ongoing effects that make adverse effects longer to subside. One substance abuse report found that one type of synthetic marijuana bound 100 times more tightly to the CB1 receptor, compared to naturally occurring THC.
- Loss of consciousness
- Rapid heart rate
- Chest pain
- Extreme aggression
- Psychotic symptoms that require sedatives
- Anxiety or panic attacks
Since Spice, K2, kush, and other synthetic cannabinoids were released into the U.S., several states have banned these drugs. The federal government has also banned various types of synthetic marijuana. Local and state governments are now finding methods of banning the whole group of synthetic cannabinoids rather than banning individual compounds. This makes it less likely that replacements will almost immediately pop up after an individual compound is banned.
The first step in recovering from synthetic cannabinoid abuse is eliminating the substance from your system. During detox, the aftermath effects of synthetic cannabinoids vary by individual. Severity of withdrawal symptoms depends on factors like:
- How long you’ve been using drugs.
- In what quantities you’ve been abusing drugs.
- Your physical make-up.
- If you’ve been abusing multiple substances.
- Presence of co-occurring disorders like mental illness
Supportive medications may be used to address specific symptoms of withdrawal, such as anxiety, insomnia, or other issues.
A comprehensive addiction treatment program should always follow detox to prevent relapse. Time in a treatment facility will help you address the reasons behind addiction. You’ll engage in individual behavioral therapy and group therapy. Some treatment programs also offer alternative approaches like yoga, psychodrama, art therapy, and music therapy. During your time in treatment, you’ll begin healing from the invisible wounds of substance abuse and learn healthy coping skills that support long-term recovery.
Footprints to Recovery provides addiction treatment for drug and alcohol abuse that’s grounded in evidence. Our team of behavioral health professionals is highly credentialed and compassionate people who are truly invested in your health and recovery. If you or a loved one is struggling, call us today for a free, confidential consultation.