Synthetic Marijuana is Far More Dangerous Than Weed

By C. Michael White, University of Connecticut | August 29, 2018 5:39 pm
(Credit: Mitch M/shutterstock)

(Credit: Mitch M/shutterstock)

A version of this article originally appeared on The Conversation.

The Green, a gathering place in New Haven, Connecticut, near Yale University looked like a mass casualty zone, with 70 serious drug overdoses over a period spanning Aug. 15-16, 2018.

The cause: synthetic cannabinoids, also known as K2, Spice, or AK47, which induced retching, vomiting, loss of consciousness and trouble breathing. On July 19, 2018, the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers that another batch of synthetic marijuana had been laced with rat poison. In 10 states and the District of Columbia, hundreds of people were hospitalized with severe bleeding, and four people died.

Many parts of the country have seen episodic crises due to synthetic marijuana, the largest occurring in Mississippi, where 721 adverse events were logged between April 2-3, 2015.

Even with outbreaks aside, synthetic cannabinoids are 30 times more likely to harm you than regular marijuana. Even with these risks, 7 percent of high school seniors and approximately 17 percent of adults have tried synthetic cannabinoids. It is easy to understand why these synthetic substitutes are alluring. They are easy to purchase, relatively inexpensive, produce a more potent high and don’t emit the typical marijuana scent. And, they are much harder to detect in the urine or blood than marijuana.

As an intensive care pharmacist and clinical pharmacologist, I have been researching street drugs for over a decade to help emergency room, critical care and poison control clinicians treat overdosing patients.

Why is Smoking Synthetic Marijuana Dangerous?

When you open a packet of a synthetic cannabinoid like K2 or Spice and pour the dried vegetation into your hand, it looks like marijuana. These dried leaves and stems can be inert or come from psychoactive plants like Wild Dagga. Some of these plants are contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides, mold or salmonella.

However, synthetic cannabinoids are anything but natural. They are mass-produced overseas and then shipped in bulk to the U.S., where they are dissolved and then mixed with dried vegetation, which absorbs the liquid. This process is very imprecise, so the dose in one packet can differ greatly within or between batches.

There are several hundred synthetic cannabinoids in existence, and they all stimulate cannabinoid type 1 receptors (CB1), just like the active component in natural marijuana, THC, that provides the high. But they do so with different intensities and for differing periods of time. Some incorporate the central ring structure of the THC molecule before laboratory modification, but many others do not. More problems arise because some of the synthetic cannabinoids stimulate non-cannabinoid receptors and can cause unanticipated effects as well. There is no way to know which synthetic cannabinoids are actually in the product you purchased.

Natural marijuana does not comprise only THC. The other constituents in natural marijuana such as cannabidiol actually help to temper the negative impact of THC but are absent in synthetic cannabinoids. In addition to these myriad risks, there is also a risk that synthetic cannabinoids can be adulterated with other chemicals, ranging from opioids to rat poison.

Synthetic cannabinoids were initially designed by legitimate researchers in the U.S. and around the world who were looking to explore the function and structure of cannabinoid receptors. They did not intend for illegal drug labs to use their recipe to mass-produce these synthetic cannabinoids.

What Does Synthetic Marijuana do to The Body?

In addition to giving the user a high, the primary psychological and neurological effects of synthetic cannabinoid use include anxiety, agitation and paranoia, although psychosis and seizures have also occurred. The anxiety and psychosis can cause the heart to beat fast and even trigger heart attacks or strokes when the body’s adrenaline gets flowing. Many people suffer upset stomach with synthetic cannabinoids, and vomiting is also common (which is paradoxical, since medical marijuana is used to prevent vomiting). Finally, there is a risk that synthetic cannabinoids can damage both the muscles and kidneys.

Rarely, people reported having trouble breathing, but in some cases this is due to adrenaline release. In other cases, the butane that was used to extract THC from marijuana before laboratory alteration was not removed. The butane ignites during smoking and damages the lungs. Early detection and aggressive treatment for all of these adverse events can help to prevent severe adverse events or death.

How Can We Reduce The Risks?

Many of the risks of synthetic cannabinoids and other illegal drugs of abuse arise because of contamination, adulteration, substitution and inconsistent dosages. As long as people are able to manufacture, transport and sell these drugs secretly, there is no way to assure buyers of a consistent quality product. Public health personnel, teachers and parents need to educate adults and students alike about the inherent risks of the drugs in their pure form but should also include the risks associated with poor manufacturing practices.

People generally prefer natural marijuana to synthetic forms, but as long as natural marijuana remains illegal, highly desired, easily detected and periodically unavailable, the desire to purchase synthetic forms will persist.

Finally, synthetic cannabinoids are primarily manufactured overseas. Foreign governments, especially in Asia, need to crack down on illegal drug factories and better scan freight for illegal drugs. In addition, all shipping companies need to do more to detect the illegal transport of drugs into the United States. There are hand-held detectors that can help identify some but not most synthetic cannabinoids. However, detection will still be painstakingly slow.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World
  • John Thompson

    Some of the points also apply to real marijuana when it is produced illegally.
    “Some of these plants are contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides, mold or salmonella.”
    I don’t even know how people wouldn’t be aware of the issues with the synthetic stuff given all the news reports.
    In Houston the park around the Zoo was a cess pool of homeless addicts and criminals. You couldn’t even let your kids use the playground without fear.
    Apparently K2 was being sold there and one day one of them lost it and was naked in the main pond/lake in front of the kids train near the entrance. He would not get out for the police.
    After that the city kicked them out of the park (I know, why didn’t they do it decades ago?). Not only was it safe for kids, but you could even use the bathrooms! They had police patrolling the area – including police cars going up and down THE SIDEWALKS THROUGH THE PARK!
    Of course now the same people are under a large overpass area – the neighbors there must love that.
    Crazy people really must be kept away from drugs that make them even more crazy!

    • Not_that_anyone_cares, but…

      “I don’t even know how people wouldn’t be aware of the issues with the synthetic stuff given all the news reports.”

      Do you really think the persons who use these products are checking the news each day?

    • ties

      so we should trust the FDA or the USDA that forces GMO’s on US

      • OWilson


        Feel free to grow your own.

        But even then you will be hard pressed to find anything in the food chain that has not been GM’d by humans over the millennia! :)

        • ties

          yes forces when the government won’t label product so we don’t know what we are eating… The USDA is a whore to the highest bidder…. And there is a difference between genetic engineering and hybrid

          • OWilson

            I see your point!

            Genetic engineering is like hybridization.

            Only faster! :)

  • ties

    Synthetic plants chemicals is what most drugs are , and yes the plants are much safer, But drug companies can’t patent plants and make billions so synthetic is what we get…. SAD

  • Mark Godfrey

    It’s isn’t marijuana you fools. Stop calling it that, these compounds are double-indole rings which has nothing in common with cannabinoinds.

  • PhishPhace

    When you mess with designer drugs you are introducing untested compounds into your body. You have no idea what it is going to do, what the short term adverse effects will be, and long term consequences night occur. That sounds very dumb to me. But as Robert Heinlein once said, “Never under estimate the power of human stupidity”.

    When big pharma starts testing new compounds for potential drug use, they use rats. That is exactly what you are when you partake of the agents; something as expendable as a lab rat.

    If you want to be stupid and do this type of stuff in the privacy of your own home; have at it. Along with this come the responsibility of accepting the consequences of the decisions you make. If you get in trouble because of your actions, don’t come to for help. If you can’t cover the cost of medical treatment; that’s too bad … you die.

    This includes using my tax dollars to treat tobacco and alcohol related illnesses.

  • Lewisbieber

    “Some of these plants are contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides, mold or salmonella” Imagine how toxic food that is imported from china is..never buy food imported from China which appears in grocery stores. check labels.


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