Synthetic Marijuana: Facts, Side Effects, and Treatment

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The use of synthetic marijuana, a novel psychoactive substance (NPS) containing manmade cannabinoids, is popular, particularly among teenage populations, due to the drug being legal and advertised as “safe.”1.2 While chemically similar to real marijuana and producing similar effects, these substances are more dangerous and potent.2

What is Synthetic Marijuana?

Synthetic marijuana, or synthetic cannabinoids (SCs), are psychoactive chemicals sold as either a liquid that can be smoked as vapor or as a chemical sprayed on dried plant material to be smoked or used as tea.1 SCs are usually sold in small foil bags and made to look like incense; sellers may call the substance ‘herbal incense’ or ‘potpourri’ and often mark the packaging with claims of being natural or organic. However, synthetic cannabinoids are not naturally occurring substances.2

While some SCs have been banned and designated as Schedule I drugs by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the sale of synthetic marijuana is still largely unregulated, and it can be purchased legally. They are often marketed as safe alternatives to illegal drugs such as marijuana. However, the chemical composition of synthetic cannabinoids varies greatly, so its effects can be unpredictable and, in some cases, life-threatening.1

Synthetic Cannabinoids List

As synthetic marijuana is an unregulated designer drug, new types are frequently being made to circumvent restrictions on previously used compounds. The drug most often comes as a psychoactive chemical added to dried, shredded plant material, but the composition of this chemical varies among brands and batches.3 Some of the brands and aliases for synthetic cannabinoids are as follows:2,3,4

  • Spice
  • K2
  • Fake Weed
  • AK-47
  • Bliss
  • Scooby Snax
  • Kronic
  • Ninja
  • Moon Rocks
  • Skunk
  • Yucatan Fire
  • Zohai
  • Black Mamba

What are the Effects of Synthetic Cannabinoids?

Synthetic marijuana comprises psychoactive compounds that bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain, replicating the high created by THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) found naturally in cannabis.

The common immediate effects of synthetic cannabinoids that are similar to that of natural marijuana include:1,3

  • Feelings of relaxation
  • Elevated mood
  • Altered perception of environment
  • Hallucinations or delusions

Though there have so far been few scientific studies into the effects of SCs on the brain, research has shown these chemicals bind more intensely than natural marijuana to cell receptors in the brain that respond to THC.4 This effect, combined with the varying chemical makeup of the drug, means side effects of synthetic marijuana are largely unpredictable and dangerous. The most commonly reported adverse effects include: 1,2,3,5

  • Respiratory difficulties
  • Hypertension
  • Tachycardia, or rapid heart rate
  • Muscle twitches
  • Renal Failure
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Muscle damage
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Psychotic symptoms, including:
    • Heightened anxiety and panic attacks
    • Paranoia
    • Agitation or irritability
    • Confusion
    • Hallucinations

These effects depend on many factors, including the type of synthetic cannabinoid used, the dose of the drug, and the duration of use. There is currently little data regarding the health problems associated with long-term use of synthetic marijuana, and due to the inconsistent chemical compounds being used, it is near impossible to predict the effects of regular SC use on the body.

Is Synthetic Marijuana Addictive?

Synthetic cannabinoids can be addictive, especially if the substances the chemicals are cut with are highly addictive, such as opioids.6 Further, regardless of chemical additions, repeated use of synthetic cannabinoids can create dependence, in which your brain starts to rely on the presence of synthetic marijuana to properly function. While dependence doesn’t always correlate with addiction, it can be a sign you have formed a substance use disorder or addiction. Other signs of addiction to synthetic marijuana include using the SC despite negative consequences and using the drug longer or more than intended.

Individuals who regularly use synthetic marijuana can face unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when ceasing use. When trying to quit the use of synthetic marijuana, you may experience the following symptoms:2,4

  • Headaches
  • Anxiety
  • Chest pain
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping

Can You Overdose on Synthetic Cannabinoids?

It is possible to overdose on synthetic cannabinoids regardless of their composition. Though even intoxication with SCs can be dangerous, taking large quantities of synthetic marijuana in a short amount of time can result in serious, harmful symptoms or death. Individuals who overdose on SCs may experience the following severe symptoms:3,4,5,7

  • Acute kidney injury
  • High blood pressure
  • Chest pains
  • Seizures
  • Acute psychotic episodes
  • Heart attack
  • Multiple organ failure
  • Unconsciousness

However, since synthetic cannabinoids can be cut with other dangerous drugs or contaminants, severe reactions can occur at any dose or use.3,7 Death has reportedly occurred when dangerous synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, are added to the chemical mixture.1 Excessive bleeding and related death have also recently been reported by those who have used contaminated synthetic marijuana.8

Treatment for Synthetic Marijuana Use

There are no FDA-approved medications or behavioral therapies specifically for the treatment of addiction to synthetic cannabinoids. However, medical professionals may be able to help treat adverse effects of intoxication or acute withdrawal symptoms by targeting the presenting symptoms.4 For example, antiemetics can be administered for some severe episodes of vomiting related to SC use, or sedatives like lorazepam can be used to treat seizures due to withdrawal.

Some reports note half of users seeking treatment for synthetic marijuana withdrawal symptoms have required inpatient medical attention.3 Because SCs are hard to detect in common drug screening tests—part of why their use is so popular—it is imperative you tell medical professionals the synthetic marijuana you have used and how much so doctors can best address your symptoms.7

Co-occurring substance use and mental health conditions should also be addressed by treatment specialists to aid in minimizing behaviors that lead to substance misuse.2 Therapeutic treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and family therapy may be used to address the thought processes and environmental influences that have led you to start using synthetic cannabinoids.

If you or a loved one is misusing synthetic marijuana, we can help you find treatment options. Please call (800) 662-HELP (4357) to speak with a specialist at any time.

Resources

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Synthetic Cannabinoids (K2/Spice).
  2. Cohen, K., & Weinstein, A. M. (2018). Synthetic and Non-synthetic Cannabinoid Drugs and Their Adverse Effects-A Review From Public Health ProspectiveFrontiers in public health, 6(162).
  3. Seely, K.A., Lapoint, J., Moran, J.H., and Fattore, L. (2012). Spice drugs are more than harmless herbal blends: A review of the pharmacology and toxicology of synthetic cannabinoids. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 39(2): 234-243.
  4. Bukke, V.N., Archana, M., Villani, R., Serviddio, G., Cassano, T. (2021). Pharmacological and Toxicological Effects of Phytocannabinoids and Recreational Synthetic Cannabinoids: Increasing Risk of Public Health. Pharmaceuticals (Basel).
  5. Department of Behavioral Health. Synthetic Marijuana Can Be Deadly.
  6. Coopman, V. Cordonnier, J. ‘Spice-like’ herbal incense laced with the synthetic opioid U-47700. Toxicologie Analytique et Clinique, 30(1).
  7. Fattore, L., & Fratta, W. (2011). Beyond THC: The New Generation of Cannabinoid Designer DrugsFrontiers in behavioral neuroscience5(60).
  8. Illinois Department of Public Health. Synthetic Cannabinoids.

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