Synthetic cannabinoids (“synthetic marijuana,” “Spice drug,” “K2”) are various artificial chemicals that some people may use as an alternative to marijuana. Unfortunately, these seemingly innocent little packages of fake weed can cause serious side effects that are very different from those of marijuana.
Synthetic cannabinoid products can be toxic. As a result, people who smoke these products can react with rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion, and hallucinations. Some have to get help from emergency medical services or in hospital emergency departments or intensive care units. Synthetic cannabinoids bind to the same receptors to which cannabinoids ( THC and CBD) in cannabis plants attach.
Manufacturers sell these products in colorful foil packages and plastic bottles to attract consumers. In addition, they market these products under a wide variety of specific brand names. For several years, synthetic cannabinoid mixtures have been easy to buy in drug paraphernalia shops, novelty stores, gas stations, and over the internet. However, because the chemicals used in them have no medical benefit and a high potential for abuse, authorities have made it illegal to sell, buy, or possess some of these chemicals. However, manufacturers try to sidestep these laws by changing the chemical formulas in their mixtures.
Easy access and the belief that synthetic cannabinoid products are natural and therefore harmless have likely contributed to their use among young people. Another reason for their continued use is that standard drug tests cannot easily detect many of the chemicals used in these products.
Is Synthetic Cannabis Still Sold in Stores?
In July 2012, a national ban was enacted against synthetic cannabinoids in the U.S. Local and state laws also regulate synthetic cannabinoids. While synthetic cannabinoids are illegal in the U.S. and the product may still be sold illegally on the streets. Spice or K2 has been marketed as incense in colorful three-ounce pouches or vials and labeled “not for human consumption.” Spice or K2 became increasingly popular with young adults in the mid-2000’s because it was legal and easily obtainable from convenience stores, smoke shops, and online.
Popular belief is that “Spice drug” or “K2” is safe, non-toxic, and results in a psychoactive (mind-altering) effect similar to regular marijuana. However, case reports and surveys have identified severe toxicities that occur with the use of synthetic cannabinoids, and some users have required emergency room treatment. Furthermore, the chemicals synthesized to produce synthetic cannabinoids can be more potent than natural THC found in raw marijuana and may have more dangerous side effects.
Methods of Use
The most common way to use synthetic cannabinoids is to smoke the dried plant material. Users also mix the sprayed plant material with marijuana or brew it as tea. Other users buy synthetic cannabinoid products as liquids to vaporize in e-cigarettes.
How the Brain is Affected by Spice Drug Addiction
Synthetic cannabinoids act on the same brain cell receptors as THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana. So far, there have been few scientific studies of the effects of synthetic cannabinoids on the human brain. Still, researchers know that some of them bind more strongly than marijuana to the cell receptors affected by THC and produce much stronger effects. The resulting health effects can be unpredictable and dangerous.
Because the chemical composition of many synthetic cannabinoid products is unknown and may change from batch to batch, these products are likely to contain substances that cause dramatically different effects than the user might expect.
Some Effects Similar Produced by Marijuana
- Elevated Mood
- Altered Perception: awareness of surrounding objects and conditions
- Symptoms of Psychosis: delusional or disordered thinking detached from reality
- Extreme Anxiety
- Paranoia: excessive and unreasonable distrust of others
- Hallucinations: sensations and images that seem real though they are not
Some Other Health Effects Of Synthetic Cannabinoids
People who have used synthetic cannabinoids and have been taken to emergency rooms have shown severe effects, including:
- Rapid Heart Rate
- Violent Behavior
- Suicidal Thoughts
Synthetic Cannabinoid Addiction
Yes, synthetic cannabinoids can be addictive. The following symptoms are a few of the effects a user will experience after stopping use:
Behavioral therapies and medications have not specifically been tested for the treatment of addiction to these products. Health care providers should screen clients for possible co-occurring mental health conditions.
Can You Overdose on Synthetic Cannabinoids?
Yes. An overdose occurs when a person uses too much of a drug and has a dangerous reaction that results in severe, harmful symptoms, or death. For example, the use of synthetic cannabinoids can cause:
- Toxic Reactions
- Elevated Blood Pressure
- Reduced Blood Supply to the heart
- Kidney Damage
Death may also occur when dangerous synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl are added to the packaged mixture without the user knowing it.
Cannabinoid or Spice Drug “K2” Compounds
The cannabinoid compounds in these synthetic agents act on the same cell receptors as those affected by the THC in natural marijuana. Identified compounds include:
- CP 47,497 and Homologs
Some of the synthesized compounds in synthetic cannabinoids bind much more strongly to THC receptors than regular marijuana, leading to more robust, unpredictable, or dangerous effects. For example, some synthesized compounds have been 100 times more potent than the average THC found in marijuana.
In addition, as with many illicit designer drugs, the chemical composition may be unknown and are may combine some products with other toxic chemicals.
The chemicals used in these products have a high potential for abuse and no medical benefit. As a result, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has designated many active chemicals found most frequently in synthetic cannabinoids as Schedule I controlled substances the most restrictive Schedule, making it illegal to sell, buy, or possess them. Manufacturers attempt to evade these legal restrictions by substituting different chemicals in their mixtures, while the DEA monitors and updates the list of banned cannabinoid derivatives.
Synthetic Cannabinoids And Bleeding Risk
The Illinois Department of Health  reported several cases of severe bleeding in people who had used synthetic cannabinoids, such as the Spice drug or K2, contaminated with blood thinners. Subsequently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  posted an Outbreak Alert warning of life-threatening vitamin K-dependent antagonist bleeding disorders linked with synthetic cannabinoid use in Illinois and other states.
Laboratory testing confirmed that clients were exposed to brodifacoum (an anticoagulant or blood thinner in rat poison) because of the contaminated synthetic cannabinoids. In reports, since this time, other anticoagulants have been identified in these manufactured products. Symptoms that can expect with ingestion of synthetic cannabinoids laced with anticoagulant rat poison or other blood thinners can include:
- Excessive Bleeding
- Bleeding Gums
- Coughing up or Vomiting Blood
- Pink or Red Urine due to blood in the urine
- Dark-Colored Stools or Blood in Stools
- Weighty Menstrual Bleeding
- Back or Stomach Pain
- Loss of Consciousness
If you have consumed synthetic marijuana and have signs or symptoms of bleeding, call 911 or go to an emergency room immediately; tell the doctor you have smoked synthetic marijuana and that you are bleeding, or maybe bleeding. Follow the advice of a healthcare provider. This is a problematic and possibly life-threatening situation. Do not delay treatment.
Laboratory tests can determine the extent of your anticoagulation and may start long-term vitamin K (phytonadione) treatment to reverse the effects of the blood thinner. However, there have been reports that Spice or K2 may be laced with other illicit substances, such as fentanyl, which can rapidly lead to respiratory depression and death. In addition, synthetic cannabinoids are created illegally, are not regulated by any authority, and may be contaminated with any number of poisonous substances.
Long-Term Effects Of Spice Drug Addiction
The long-term effects of synthetic cannabinoids on reproduction, cancer development, memory, or addiction potential are not known because one of the reports suggests some of these products may contain heavy metal residues that may be harmful to health. Other reports claim synthetic marijuana can be addicting — users who have had even unpleasant experiences crave the additional drug because regular users may experience withdrawal symptoms.
We Level Up Treatment Center provides world-class care with round-the-clock medical professionals available to help you cope. We work as an integrated team providing support through treatment for spice drugs and other aspects of rehabilitation. Make this your opportunity to reclaim your life. Call today to speak with one of our treatment specialists. Our counselors know what you are going through and will answer any of your questions.
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 IDPH – Site | IDPH (illinois.gov)
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Notes from the Field: Outbreak of Severe Illness Linked to the Vitamin K Antagonist Brodifacoum and Use of Synthetic Cannabinoids — Illinois, March–April 2018 | MMWR (cdc.gov)