Is synthetic marijuana like regular pot? How is it sold and marketed? Is it really safer than plant-based marijuana?
These and other important questions are addressed in this article. Below are seven evidence-informed facts about synthetic marijuana every youth and adult should know to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.
Fact #1: Synthetic marijuana is NOT regular pot.
Unlike plant-based marijuana, synthetic marijuana refers to a growing number of man-made mind-altering chemicals or “designer drugs.” Typically, they come in two forms. One, shredded plant material with the synthetic marijuana chemicals sprayed on it, designed to be smoked or brewed as a tea, and sold as “herbal incense.” Two, liquids meant to be vaporized and inhaled using e-cigarette or marijuana vaporizers, and sold as “liquid incense.”
Fact #2: Synthetic marijuana is like regular pot in one way.
While synthetic and plant-based marijuana are two different things, there is one similarity. Both contain cannabinoids, the chemicals found in the cannabis plant. While the cannabinoids found in regular and synthetic marijuana are somewhat similar, they also differ chemically in important ways. These differences result in so called synthetic or fake marijuana having more powerful, unpredictable, and even life-threatening effects than real, plant-based marijuana.
Fact #3: Fake weed is falsely marketed as being “safe,” “natural,” and “legal.”
Fake marijuana is wrongly marketed as “safe” and “natural” and sold as “legal” alternatives to marijuana. However, synthetic marijuana is none of these. First reported in the mid to late-2000s in Europe and the US, synthetic cannabinoids were sold as “legal” forms of marijuana under the names K2 or Spice. Because of their structural differences to THC, the primary mind-altering chemical in marijuana, users of synthetic marijuana would go undetected when tested for marijuana. As mentioned earlier, however, fake weed is more dangerous than marijuana, and is produced in laboratories.
Fact #4: Synthetic pot is continually evolving.
Synthetic marijuana formulations continue to change. This is by design by their manufactures, so that they can avoid forensic detection and legislative scheduling. In other words, so that fake pot can continue to be sold “legally.” Today, synthetic marijuana is being marketed using hundreds of new brand names, such as Joker, Black Mamba, Kush, and Kronic. These products are often found in gas stations, drug paraphernalia or “head” shops, and on the internet. They are usually sold in either colorful foil packages as herbal or tropical incense or meditation potpourris, or in small bottles as liquid incense. Today, over 150 synthetic cannabinoids have been identified.
Fact #5: Synthetic marijuana is stronger and more toxic than marijuana.
Synthetic marijuana is more potent, as well as more toxic or poisonous than marijuana. In some cases, synthetic pot use has resulted in death. Unfortunately for users, the specific makeup of any one type of fake pot product is unknown, and can even vary from batch to batch.
Fact #6: Synthetic pot can result in severe negative physical and mental effects.
While synthetic marijuana can result in short-term pleasurable effects like elevated mood and relaxation, their use is also linked to unpleasant and dangerous physical and mental outcomes. Some of the negative physical effects of fake weed reported in clinical literature with humans, and found in animal studies, include seizures and convulsions. Others involve rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, vomiting, kidney damage, violent behavior, and death. Negative mental effects reported in epidemiological studies and clinical reports include increased risk for lasting psychosis, especially among adolescents, as well as paranoia, hallucinations, and suicidal thoughts.
Fact #7: Fake weed use can result in tolerance, dependence and withdrawal.
Surveys have shown that individuals who regularly use fake weed also smoke marijuana and vice versa. This suggests that there may be a cross-tolerance between synthetic marijuana and marijuana, which could lead to individuals increasing synthetic marijuana doses and thus their risk for negative effects. In addition, dependence upon synthetic pot is implied because suddenly stopping its use results in withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, anxiety, depression and irritability. These symptoms in turn make quitting using synthetic marijuana more difficult.
In conclusion, synthetic marijuana, also known as fake weed and going by many names including K2, Spice, Joker, Kush and others, is not marijuana but man-made cannabinoid chemicals. They are falsely sold as being safe, natural and legal, but are none of these. In fact, they are much more dangerous physically and mentally to users than real (i.e., plant-based) marijuana, especially for youth.
Since manufactures are continually changing the chemical structure of synthetic marijuana to avoid detection and control by health, food and drug authorities, their exact composition is unknown. Their use has been shown to result in severe, negative effects, including convulsions, seizures, dependence, violent behavior and death.
Consumers should use extreme caution and avoid inhaling or ingesting any of these unknown chemicals, as well as pursue having them removed from sale or at least better controlled to protect youth from purchasing them.
B.M. Ford, S. Tai, W.E. Fantegrossi, P.L. Prather. Synthetic Pot: Not Your Grandfather’s Marijuana. Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, 38, 3, 2017.
National Institutes of Health. Synthetic Cannabinoids. Drug Facts. National Institute on Drug Abuse. November 2015. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/synthetic-cannabinoids