If you’ve been into a head shop in the last decade or so, chances are you’ve seen those little foil-backed baggies full of what you’re told is a safe, legal alternative to marijuana.
This is synthetic weed, also known as K2, Spice, or Potpourri.
It looks innocuous because it resembles the real thing, a crumble of leafy plant material ready for smoking or vaping in your favorite hardware.
But the truth is, synthetic marijuana has been linked to reports of psychotic episodes, suicidal thoughts, vomiting episodes, kidney damage, high blood pressure and cardiovascular issues.
Clearly synthetic marijuana can’t be lumped into the same category as regular marijuana. But synthetic weed is readily available, so many people are lulled into a false sense of security assuming it offers a safe and legal means of getting high.
Here’s a breakdown of what is synthetic weed, and why it’s dangerous for your physical and mental health compared to regular marijuana.
Where Does Synthetic Weed Come From?
In 2008, the first synthetic cannabinoid was identified on the recreational drug scene, but it was originally an aminoalkylindole developed by John Huffman at Clemson University in the US, who simply tested it on mice and wrote up a report.
But the formula resurfaced a few years later as an alternative to real marijuana and was sold under the brand name ‘Spice’ (which sounds a little more enticing than ‘JWH-018’).
Large-scale amounts of aminoalkylindoles are produced by Chinese chemical companies who ship them as powder to Europe. Upon delivery, the synthetic cannabinoids are either sprayed onto your dried plant material or put into your e-liquids to be smoked and vaporized.
Synthetic Weed Isn’t Weed at All
This synthetic cannabinoid cocktail sprayed onto a base of inactive, shredded plant material contain chemical compounds with structures similar to THC (the cannabinoid that makes you high).
These synthetic cannabinoids bind to the same receptors in the brain that THC does so users report similar experiences to those reported by marijuana users. But a similarity in the chemical structure of their psychoactive ingredients is where the similarities end.
Essentially chemical adulterants are added to pure substances to extend the quantity of the product, while reducing the quality. You simply don’t know what you’re ingesting. Chemical adulterants have been found in batches of synthetic marijuana that give its toxicity a large boost but adds nothing to its psychoactive properties.
This simply isn’t something marijuana users generally need to worry about. Strains vary, but weed is weed.
Synthetic Cannabis Potency Differs Widely
What complicates gauging the potency of any given bag of synthetic cannabis, is that it’s impossible to know which cannabinoids have been used and in what proportions.
There are over a hundred different common synthetic cannabinoids, all with differing levels of affinity for the CB1 receptors in the brain that binds with the THC in marijuana. Depending on the compound, potency can range between 2 and 100 times stronger than THC.
Now, can you imagine smoking the equivalent of 50 to 100 puffs of marijuana? Research says some unusually strong varieties that came onto the market in 2014 were 50 to 100 times stronger than THC.
Further complicating potency estimation is the spraying process, which unevenly deposits the synthetic cannabinoid cocktail on its carrier plant material, leading to chemical “hotspots”, or local areas carrying a much higher cannabinoid concentration.
These factors mean potencies can range wildly between manufacturers, batches, and even individual bags.
Real weed, on the other hand, has well-established potency ranges for the various strains and preparations available. Particularly if you’re purchasing your product from a dispensary or other retail location, you can be certain of what you’re getting and how strong it will be.
Synthetic Weed’s Severe Health Risks
It’s common knowledge both among marijuana enthusiasts and honest health professionals that weed has positive health and therapeutic impacts, particularly when it’s eaten or vaped, as opposed to smoked.
The same can’t be said for synthetic cannabis, which carries risk for frequent users.
Synthetic cannabinoids act directly with cannabinoid CB1 and CB2 receptors like THC does in marijuana, but they have different chemical structures and greater toxicity.
While research around the implications of synthetic cannabinoid use is still in its infancy, some studies suggest synthetic cannabis has been shown to negatively impact psychological states (i.e. mood, psychosis), and physiological functions such as urinary and gastrointestinal functions, as well as the cardiovascular system with links to arrhythmias, stroke, and sudden cardiac death. Other studies show synthetic weed contributing to stroke in healthy, young adults.
The risks are associated with the synthetic cannabinoids themselves, as well as with the contaminants introduced during the manufacturing process.
In May, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported 164 synthetic weed overdoses, and 4 fatalities as a result of poisoning from synthetic marijuana. Both the deaths and illnesses involved batches of the drug contaminated with brodifacoum, an anticoagulant used in rat poison. Cases involved users bleeding heavily from their eyes and noses, as well as experiencing internal bleeding.
In 2018, 75 people in New Haven, Connecticut, overdosed as a result of a bad batch of ‘K2’ synthetic weed. Doctors say those who tested positive may have also taken other drugs laced with fentanyl.
“The most important point is when you buy something on the street, you never know what you’re going to get,” says Dr. Kathryn Hawk in one news source. Hawk is the emergency medicine physician and professor at Yale-New Haven Hospital, where many of the victims were treated.
There’s no regulation on the composition of synthetic weed or best practice for manufacturing, so users have no real way of knowing what it contains. That’s why the experience might vary from dose to dose given the wildly different potencies, chemical compositions, and unpredictable combinations.
Now that you know some of the risks associated with synthetic marijuana, so let’s take a closer look at the effects below.
The Dangerous Effects of Fake Weed
Synthetic weed users report the same sort of effects as real marijuana, however sometimes the high is much more overwhelming and unpredictable.
Immediate physical side effects include:
- Slurred speech
- Poor coordination (ataxia)
- Memory loss
- Changes in perception
- Rapid heartbeat
- Suicidal thoughts
Psychological side can include:
- Severe psychomotor agitation
Nothing is conclusive yet about long-term damage.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has also outlined the cannabinoid’s “severe health risks” and come out with a statement reporting that hundreds of individuals across 10 states were hospitalized from complications due to products containing brodifacoum.
It’s unclear how much of this is attributable to the synthetic cannabinoids themselves and how may be caused by contaminants like fentanyl, but in any case this propensity for withdrawal is a clear delineator between synthetic weed and the real thing.
The Legal Grey Zone
Synthetic weed occupies a legal grey zone. Several states have enacted bans of varying strengths. Some only ban specific cannabinoids. In these cases, manufacturers simply change their recipes. Others ban all related substances or ban the product in its entirety.
Federally, certain specific synthetic cannabinoids have been added to the list of Schedule 1 drugs, but the class of substances as a whole is still legal. Manufacturers operate within the murky waters of these federal and state laws and as the industry hasn’t suffered much considering.
The death knell for synthetic weed may well be the legalization of marijuana. Why would people need to chase unsafe pretenders to the throne when the real deal is so freely available?
Just another incentive for regulators and politicians to open the flood gates of marijuana legalization to prevent cannabis consumers from consuming toxic synthetic cannabis.
Tips to Ensure You Don’t Have Synthetic Marijuana
So how does this apply to the cannabis consumer?
Make sure you take these precautions when purchasing marijuana/cannabis:
1. Are you being sold whole buds?
Start off with it’s appearance. Real marijuana should always be whole buds. But synthetic weed nearly always comes in little packets of a mixture of ground-up material from different plants.
So ask yourself, are these whole buds? And does it look like there’s a few different plants in this packet? If yes, bin it.
2. Keep your eyes peeled for these Brands
If you’re offered anything under the following brand names, avoid it.
- Black Mamba
- No More Mr. Nice Guy
- Cowboy Kush
- Scooby Snax
- Red Giant
- Mr. Bad Guy
- Geeked Up
3. The Odour
Real weed has a skunky, musky smell, where as synthetic marijuana smells stale, stinky, pungent, or wet. Or it can smell like chemicals, or have an odor designed to match the label.
Hopefully now you are aware of some of the dangers linked with synthetic marijuana, and you’ve come away with some ideas of how to avoid the stuff.