Synthetic marijuana is the commonly used term for synthetic cannabinoids, which are a group of human-made chemicals that are structurally similar to the THC found in marijuana. These chemicals are either sprayed onto dried, non-marijuana plant material and sold as “incense” to be smoked, or they are packaged as a liquid for e-cigarettes and vaporizers.

These chemicals are labeled “not for human consumption,” but the intention is for the purchaser to ingest the synthetic cannabinoids to get high. Because these drugs are made in a lab, chemists are able to slightly alter the formula to develop new “strains,” and even when the same packaging is used, the product might contain a new chemical or a different concentration. These manufactured cannabinoids produce some similar effects to marijuana, but they can also produce stronger and more unpredictable psychoactive effects.

What Is Synthetic Marijuana’s Intended Use?

What Is Synthetic Marijuana?
These substances are most commonly found in brightly colored foil packets, labeled as “incense” or “potpourri.” Sometimes, they are in plastic bottles and labeled that they should be consumed in vaporizers. The most known names for synthetic marijuana are K2 and Spice, but it’s also known by other names, such as Black Mamba, Kush, and Scooby Snax. Synthetic marijuana has been sold legally and openly at convenience stores, head shops, paraphernalia shops, gas stations, and online. However, as law enforcement tries to crack down more on synthetic marijuana, it has increasingly been found on the black market.

Synthetic marijuana is especially troublesome for law enforcement, because most of the chemicals are technically legal. Although they are intended to be intoxicating substances and can be extremely dangerous, manufacturers intentionally alter the chemical structure to avoid legal penalties. In June 2012, Congress passed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act, which made some of the chemical formulas illegal, such as K2 and Spice, which are the most notorious formulations. Additionally, some states have made the concept of synthetic cannabinoids illegal, and the Drug Enforcement Administration has made a few additional strains illegal through their temporary scheduling powers. However, for the most part, the compounds sold in retail shops or online are technically legal, and manufacturers stay one step ahead of lawmakers by producing new formulas all the time.

These chemicals have no intended medical purpose. They are designed only to induce intoxication in the person who ingests them.

Who Abuses Synthetic Marijuana?

Synthetic marijuana is marketed as “natural,” and it is legal in many states. Although the target demographic is any age group, teenagers under the legal drinking and smoking age typically purchase these chemicals more than adults. This is because teenagers have legal access to synthetic marijuana, but not cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs of abuse. According to a study “Synthetic Cannabinoid Use in a Nationally Representative Sample of US High School Seniors,” male teenagers are more likely to abuse these drugs than females. In addition, white teenagers are more likely than other ethnic groups to abuse synthetic marijuana. The study’s researchers also found that students who struggled with polydrug abuse, such as abuse of tobacco or alcohol, were more likely to use synthetic marijuana.

One finding, according to the 2015 Monitoring the Future survey, was that any illicit drug use – including use of alcohol, tobacco, synthetic marijuana, heroin, MDMA, and recreational abuse of prescription medications – remained essentially unchanged in the 8th, 10th, and 12th graders surveyed. In fact, annual prevalence of synthetic marijuana specifically declined among these grades – 3 percent prevalence among 8th graders, 4 percent among 10th graders, and 5 percent among 12th graders. In 2011, synthetic marijuana had been the second most widely abused drug among these age groups, after marijuana. Prevalence at that time was 4.4 percent, 8.8 percent, and 11.4 percent, respectively. This is, in part, because synthetic marijuana is perceived as less safe now than in 2011.

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A 2014 study conducted by the University of Washington also found that active-duty US Army personnel were more likely to abuse synthetic cannabis compared to other drugs, in large part because these chemicals are more difficult to detect on standard drug tests. The survey used data from the Warrior Check-Up, a telephone intervention for members of the Armed Forces who may have undetected substance abuse problems. The phone call asked about drug use patterns, including synthetic marijuana; they found that 38 percent of respondents used synthetic cannabinoids, which was twice as many as marijuana.

The US Military has banned synthetic marijuana use in all branches of service, but because it is harder to detect, enforcement has been inconsistent. Within the Armed Forces, synthetic marijuana users tended to be younger and less educated than people with just an alcohol abuse problem; they also tended to be single and to earn less money. Unlike high school students, however, there was no reported difference among ethnic or religious groups.

The Effects of Synthetic Marijuana

Because synthetic marijuana is a relatively new drug, there have been few scientific studies about its impact on the brain. The chemicals found in these drugs are intended to get the user high, so there is potential for abuse, as well as addiction and dependence.

Physical effects of synthetic marijuana include:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Violent physical outbursts
  • Kidney damage
  • Seizures

Psychological effects include suicidal ideation, paranoia, hallucinations, and psychosis. This combination is very dangerous, as it can lead to suicidal actions or violent outbursts against other people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the first five months of 2015, 15 individuals died from using synthetic marijuana; in the same period in 2014, five people died.

Signs of Addiction, Overdose, and Withdrawal

Because different strains of synthetic marijuana have slightly different chemical structures, the effects on the body are unpredictable. Generally, they are very dangerous and can cause intense psychoactive effects. In 2016, from January to April, poison control centers around the country received 1,070 reports of exposure to synthetic marijuana.

Signs of synthetic marijuana intoxication include:

  • Elevated mood
  • Relaxation or drowsiness
  • Altered perception of stimuli, such as sounds or colors
  • Psychosis (i.e., disordered and delusional thinking that leads to a disconnection from reality)
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Paranoia

The effects of synthetic marijuana, especially increased heart rate, paranoia, and aggression, can last for hours. Side effects are very detrimental and may include:

  • Extreme agitation or anxiety
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Dangerously elevated heart rate or blood pressure
  • Hallucinations
  • Psychosis
  • Heart attack

If a person becomes addicted to synthetic marijuana and tries to stop using the drug, they could experience withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Anxiety, depression, irritability, or mood swings
  • Ongoing psychosis
  • Depression
  • Poor appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Restlessness

One of the side effects of ending synthetic marijuana use is called synthetic cannabinoid withdrawal syndrome. This cluster of withdrawal symptoms is mostly characterized by rapid heartbeat (tachycardia) and anxiety.

Overdoses involving synthetic marijuana are on the rise. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there were an estimated 11,406 emergency room visits in 2010 related specifically to synthetic cannabinoids. Three-quarters of the people in this group were ages 12-29, with the highest prevalence among ages 12-24. About 78 percent were male. Over half of these visits did not involve any other intoxicating substances beyond synthetic marijuana, which is an indication of how dangerous these chemicals can be.

Get Help for Synthetic Marijuana Abuse

Get Help
Currently, there are no specific medications that are targeted at reducing withdrawal symptoms when a person wants to end their addiction to synthetic marijuana. However, rehabilitation programs can offer both medical, therapeutic, and social support during the process. For example, an overseeing physician might prescribe a short course of benzodiazepines to reduce the potential for seizures, depression, and anxiety while the person detoxes from synthetic marijuana. These doctors will also monitor the individual’s vital signs and prevent them from becoming dehydrated or malnourished due to vomiting or diarrhea.

A rehabilitation program will also involve intense therapeutic care, likely on an individual and group basis. Group therapy offers social support, as individuals learn tools to manage cravings and emotional triggers in the future. In individual therapy, clients will delve into personal issues that factored into their substance abuse and learn how to resist relapse. The key is that treatment is tailored to fit the needs of each person in rehab. With customized care, individuals can stop using synthetic marijuana for good.