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Synthetic Cannabinoids: Growing Side Effects Make Now a Great Time to Stay Away

Published on July 28, 2016 · Last updated July 28, 2020

Anyone with even a vague pulse on current events has probably heard of K2, Spice, or another name for synthetic cannabinoids, because they’ve been plaguing news headlines for the last few weeks.

In Brooklyn, 33 were sent to hospitals for overdoses. Their behavior ranged from erratic to zombie-like.

Further New York coverage, released a few days later, raised the figure to 130 related hospital visits statewide.

A man in Shelton, Washington went into a 3-day coma after smoking synthetic cannabinoids.

These are just the latest of many incidents bubbling up in headlines. In 2012, a 16-year old died in a hot tub from lung failure induced by synthetic cannabinoids. National concern sparked shortly after an Iowa teen committed suicide while on the drug, prompting the addition of several synthetic cannabinoids to the list of Schedule I Controlled Substances in the United States.

A Surge of Synthetic Cannabis Overdoses

Synthetic cannabis overdoses

From 2014 to 2015, synthetic cannabinoid-related calls to poison control increased 229 percent, and data for 2016 is still pending. Why the surge in overdoses? The answer to this question is not as readily apparent.

In the middle of my research, Forbes released a story outlining a few reasons for this sudden epidemic:

  • New chemicals are coming on the market to replace banned ones
  • Blends may be poorly mixed with a non-homogenous spread of chemicals
  • Other chemicals may be found in the product

These explanations provide a great overview for why synthetic cannabinoids are more dangerous now than ever, and it warrants further exploration into the murky world of synthetic cannabinoids. Raiding Reddit boards and talking with others more familiar with synthetic cannabinoid production and consumption, I sought out a more detailed look into this elusive underground industry.

What Is "Synthetic Marijuana" and How is It Made?

This story, courtesy of the Reddit community, puts some of these extreme effects into context:

Two of my friends had seizures while smoking K2. The one actually knocked the windshield out of his wife’s vehicle, because he thought they were crashing and he was trying to save them. She pulls over mid-rampage and is out of the vehicle as he finishes knocking the glass out, crawls out over the hood and slides off the fender onto the grass, then proclaimed they were “safe at last,” then proceeds to pass out. Then seizure.

While these compounds may bind to the same receptor sites in the brain as THC, we often see starkly different effects because they can (a) bind far more strongly than the phytocannabinoids in cannabis, and (b) contain other residual ingredients and chemicals that are definitely not safe to smoke. This chemistry may explain why use and cessation of synthetic cannabinoids is also linked to severe addictive and psychotic symptoms that are not seen with natural cannabis.

Are Synthetic Cannabinoids Legal? The DEA’s Legal Hydra

Synthetic cannabinoids: the DEA's legal hydra

Synthetic cannabinoid products exist in a legal gray area, shielding themselves with label “Not intended for human consumption” in order to bypass FDA regulation. This is why you might find synthetic cannabis for sale online, in head shops, or at gas stations.

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The DEA began to systematically banning synthetic compounds as they surfaced, beginning with JWH-018 and four similar molecules. Under the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986, the DEA could ban any substance “proven to be chemically and/or pharmacologically similar to a Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substance.” But as soon as they banned one, another molecule reared its ugly head in its place.

What Would Actually Happen if the DEA Rescheduled Cannabis?

One source, who wishes to stay anonymous, explains why this ban has led to more trouble. “Five years ago you would ship out blends with JWH-018, -073 and -081. These were quite nice synthetics,” he told us.

“Once those were made illegal, they started shipping out the stuff that wasn’t quite so nice but still okay – JWH-122, JWH-251, others. Now that those are illegal (and many more), manufacturers are sending out the really bad stuff that wouldn’t have passed quality control 5 years ago.”

So novel cannabinoids are banned, the demand remains, and material standards continue to decline. In the words of John William Huffman, an organic chemistry professor at Clemson University who started to synthesize hundreds of novel cannabinoids in the 1980s for medical research purposes, “If someone wants to get high, they’re going to figure out how to get high.”

The War on Drugs rages on despite the irrefutable truth that humans will always find a chemical alternative – and sadly, it isn’t often safer.

Why Does Synthetic Cannabis Pose Danger and Even Potentially Cause Death?

Why is synthetic cannabis dangerous and can cause death?

Using synthetic research chemicals that act like some compounds found in cannabis, clandestine chemists have produced a drug that mirrors some of marijuana’s euphoric and time-dilating properties. There’s only one problem, but it’s a life-threatening one: K2, Spice, and other imposters can introduce a host of unpredictable repercussions. Headaches, agitation, vision loss, sweating, vomiting, increased heart rate, paranoia, hallucinations, and seizures are just a glimpse into the full spectrum of its side effects.

Production errors, questionable ingredients, and unreliable sources aside, what makes synthetic cannabinoids dangerous for human consumption? They bind to the same receptors as herbal cannabis – and that’s safe, right?

Synthetic cannabinoids can be over 2-100 times more potent than regular cannabis. While THC from cannabis acts as a partial agonist, synthetic cannabinoids are full agonists, which means they hit the receptors with a maximum potential. So not only are they more potent, they’re more effective at altering brain cell communication.

How Does Cannabis Consumption Affect the Brain?

These binding sites are all over our brain, with links to our central nervous system. They affect so many important functions from breathing to heart rate. Synthetic cannabinoid metabolites also appear to bind to receptor sites and remain active while those in natural cannabis do not.

Herbal cannabis contains a nuance of chemicals that modulate the THC high. CBD helps balance the effects of THC, curbing many of its unpleasant side effects like anxiety. Terpenes also have anti-anxiety qualities. All of the hundreds of cannabinoids and terpenes found in the cannabis plant work together to create a wonderful network of effects that synthetic cannabinoids lack.

Infographic: What are Cannabis Terpenes and How Do They Affect You?

Questions remain on how synthetic cannabinoids may alter the structure of our natural endocannabinoid system. Our bodies produce natural cannabis-like compounds called endocannabinoids, which bind to the same receptors we’ve been talking about. These endogenous compounds are responsible for many homeostatic functions, and the basis of many diseases comes down to deficiencies or an overabundance of endocannabinoid activity. This is why cannabis works so well on a medical level, but dosing is key. If the dose is too high, the effect will not only be therapeutic, it can cause trouble.

With herbal cannabis, an overdose is short-term and may involve anxiety, panic, and vomiting, among other symptoms. But the dose is not high enough to induce side effects like those associated with synthetic cannabinoids – seizure, coma, suicidal psychosis, etc. And we have yet to see exactly how synthetic cannabinoids affect the concentration of receptor sites, the production of endogenous chemicals, and so forth.

So the bottom line is this: synthetic cannabis is bad, and it’s getting worse. If you have friends or family curious in K2, Spice, or other synthetic cannabinoids, educate them on all the ways synthetic cannabinoids are not cannabis.

From John W. Huffman, the man who invented the very chemicals people are abusing: “People who use it are idiots. You don’t know what it’s going to do to you.”

'Synthetic Cannabis' Rears Its Ugly Head, Sends 33 to NY Hospital

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Bailey Rahn
Bailey Rahn
Bailey is a senior content manager at Leafly, specializing in strains and health. She's spent 7+ years researching cannabis products, spreading patients’ stories, and exploring healthy ways of integrating cannabis into daily life.
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