What is Synthetic Marijuana?: Use, Effects, and Addiction

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Synthetic marijuana, also known as synthetic cannabinoids, is a synthetic version of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient found in marijuana. This drug is not made the same way each time, but most often is a plant material sprayed with synthetic psychoactive chemicals. Though they may be marketed as safe, synthetic marijuana is more powerful than marijuana and the effects can be dangerous and unpredictable.1

In this article:

Synthetic Marijuana Overview

Synthetic marijuana or cannabinoids are part of a group of drugs called new psychoactive substances (NPS). NPS are illegal and unregulated substances that produce mind-altering effects and have newly appeared on the market.1 Some of these drugs in their original form may not be new, but they can show up in a new altered chemical form and then fall into the category of NPS.

Synthetic marijuana is sometimes referred to as “fake marijuana,” and you may expect it to mimic the effects of cannabis, but this drug often has more intense and unpredictable effects. It can look like a dried plant material similar to marijuana; however, this effect comes from the chemical mixture sprayed on top of plant material.2 Sellers may say it is natural and comes from plants, but synthetic cannabinoids are chemical compounds and not natural.

Synthetic marijuana is often sold to look like incense and may even say on the package that it is not meant for human consumption. This label is most likely on the product to protect the seller from being held responsible for any adverse effects you may experience while using the drug or being prosecuted for a crime since many synthetic cannabinoids are illegal.2

Synthetic cannabinoids are sold under different names such as:1,2,3,4

  • K2
  • Spice
  • Scooby Snax
  • Bizarro
  • Mr. Nice Guy
  • Red Dawn X
  • Bliss
  • Black Mamba
  • Blaze
  • Bombay Blue
  • Fake Weed
  • Legal Weed
  • Genie
  • Zohai
  • Green Giant
  • Smacked
  • Wicked X
  • AK-47
  • Geeked Up
  • Ninja
  • Caution
  • Red Giant
  • Keisha Kole
  • 24-Karat Dream
  • Yucatan Fire

Brand names and packaging frequently change as sellers change the chemical composition to stay out of trouble with law enforcement.

How Do People Use Synthetic Marijuana?

The most common way to use synthetic cannabinoids is to buy it in dried plant form and smoke it. A few other variations of use include:

  • Buy the chemicals in liquid form to use in an e-cigarette or vape pen
  • Mix the synthetic material with real marijuana
  • Brew the material into a tea for drinking
  • Eat the material in an edible form
  • Inject the liquid form intravenously

Synthetic Marijuana Effects on the Brain

Synthetic cannabinoids consist of a compound of THC, the substance found in real marijuana. The synthetic version attaches to the same receptors in the brain as THC, producing mind-altering effects.

It is difficult to study the specific effects this drug has on your brain because the chemical makeup of each batch changes so frequently. Researchers do know that some of the synthetic materials bind more strongly to your brain receptors than real marijuana, which then produces much more potent effects.1

These synthetic drugs usually have additional ingredients such as preservatives, additives, fatty acids, amides, esters, and benzodiazepines, which are meant to give a greater psychoactive effect and to mask the identity of the substances.5

You might experience similar effects with synthetic marijuana as with real marijuana, such as:

  • Feeling happy and relaxed
  • Experiencing a heightened awareness of your surrounding environment
  • Feeling detached from reality
  • Becoming extremely anxious or paranoid
  • Experiencing confusion or disorientation
  • Hallucinating or seeing and hearing things that are not real

As with most addictive substances, this drug also impacts the reward center of your brain. When synthetic cannabinoids bind with the cannabinoid receptors, your brain releases the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which is responsible for pleasurable feelings. When you stop using the drug, your brain will crave that dopamine release again, which is why you sometimes feel the urge or craving to use the drug again.

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The Dangers of Synthetic Marijuana Use

Synthetic marijuana may be marketed as a harmless substitute for real marijuana, but it is much more dangerous. Some government and health agencies have reported hospitalizations and violent situations that are caused by the use of synthetic drugs.2 A recent study revealed that there were 37,500 cases of seizures and 3,682 cases of poisonings related to synthetic cannabinoid use during 2014.5

Part of what makes these drugs so dangerous is that you never really know what is in them. Synthetic cannabinoid packages do not list the ingredients, and there is no guarantee that you will be getting a similar product even when you buy from the same seller. This makes for unpredictable effects each time you use the drug or combine the drug with another substance.

Some of the dangerous side effects of synthetic marijuana include:2,4

  • Increased heart rate, chest pain, or heart palpitations
  • Changes in behavior, becoming incoherent, disorderly, and aggressive
  • Suicidal thoughts or self-harming behaviors
  • Agitation, anxiety, or panic
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Tremors and/or seizures
  • Kidney failure
  • Stroke
  • Uncontrolled bleeding
  • Unconsciousness

The effects of synthetic cannabinoids can last for hours and are often difficult for doctors to treat since the chemical makeup of the drug is unknown and constantly changing.

Long term use of synthetic cannabinoids can increase your risk of:5

  • Developing a psychotic disorder
  • Experiencing cardiovascular disease
  • Malfunctions in the central nervous system
  • Severe weight loss
  • Kidney diseases
  • Insomnia and nightmares

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Synthetic Marijuana Addiction

When you use synthetic marijuana regularly, it can lead to physiological dependence and addiction. When your brain gets used to the presence of synthetic cannabinoids, it can begin to rely on the drug to function optimally. If you suddenly stop using synthetic cannabinoids, you will experience withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, depression, irritability, and headaches.1

Dependence doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re addicted, but it is a major sign of addiction. A synthetic marijuana addiction is a compulsive pattern of synthetic cannabinoid use despite negative consequences. The American Psychological Association has a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) outlines the criteria of a substance use disorder, or synthetic marijuana addiction.

These criteria include:6

  • Using more synthetic cannabinoids than intended or using it for longer than you intended
  • Trying to cut down or stop using synthetic cannabinoids but being unable to
  • Experiencing intense cravings or urges to use synthetic cannabinoids
  • Needing more synthetic cannabinoids to get the desired effect—also called tolerance
  • Developing synthetic cannabinoids withdrawal symptoms when not using it
  • Spending more time getting and using synthetic cannabinoids and recovering from use
  • Neglecting responsibilities at home, work, or school because of synthetic cannabinoid use
  • Continuing to use even when it causes relationship problems
  • Giving up important or desirable social and recreational activities due to synthetic cannabinoids use
  • Using synthetic cannabinoids in risky settings, such as while driving
  • Continuing to use synthetic cannabinoids despite use causing or worsening physical or mental health

Experiencing two symptoms may indicate a mild synthetic marijuana addiction, whereas three or four symptoms may point toward a moderate addiction. And you may have a severe synthetic cannabinoid addiction if you experience six or more symptoms.

If you or someone you know has an addiction, please call 800-407-7195(Who Answers?) to speak to a specialist about treatment options.

Resources

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Synthetic Cannabinoids (K2/Spice) DrugFacts.
  2. Department of Behavioral Health. Synthetic Marijuana Can Be Deadly.
  3. United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Spice/ K2, Synthetic Marijuana.
  4. Office of Addiction Services and Supports. Synthetic Cannabinoids.
  5. Cohen, K., Weinstein, A.M. (2018). Synthetic and Non-synthetic Cannabinoid Drugs and Their Adverse Effects. Frontiers in public health, 6, 162.
  6. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. American Psychiatric Association Publishing.

the Take-Away

The chemicals used to manufacture synthetic marijuana are dangerous and can lead to a number of health complications.