Despite the name “synthetic marijuana,” these lab-made chemicals are not marijuana at all and carry high health risks.
In your effort to learn more about cannabis, you might have come across the term “synthetic marijuana.”
While synthetic marijuana is a laboratory-produced substance that is not meant for human consumption, it contains a chemical analog that binds to the same receptors as cannabinoids from organic marijuana to elicit a euphoric high.
Despite that synthetic marijuana has shown to be extremely dangerous, it’s unfortunately become somewhat popular among high school students and young adults over recent years.
Here’s what you need to know about synthetic marijuana, including how to recognize and avoid buying it.
What is Synthetic Marijuana?
Synthetic marijuana – also commonly referred to as synthetic cannabinoids, SC’s or synncanns – is typically composed of shredded plant material sprayed with a man-made chemical analog that binds with the same receptors in the brain as the active ingredient in natural marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Starting in the early 2000s, synthetic marijuana became popular as an inexpensive and legal way to get high, with brands like “K2” and “Spice” dominating the market and being inconspicuously sold online and in some smoke shops and convenience stores.
This controversial “designer drug” is smoked similarly to natural, organic marijuana, and synthetic cannabinoids are undetectable to standard marijuana drug tests, allowing consumers to use them freely without concern they would violate workplace, probation, or athletic organization policies.
Synthetic marijuana was developed in the 1990s by South Carolina chemist John William Huffman in an effort to try and find a way to imitate the natural cannabinoids found in cannabis for research purposes. These man-made compounds were meant to help better understand how cannabinoids interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system and never intended for personal use.
These synthetic cannabinoids are simple to produce, and covert manufacturers utilized Huffman’s published research to make and distribute the synthetic chemicals commercially.
Other than the monikers K2 and Spice, synthetic cannabinoid products are sold as “herbal incense” or “potpourri” under hundreds of different brand names, some of which are:
- Black Mamba
- Cloud 9
- Window XX
- No More Mr. Nice Guy
- Cowboy Kush
- Scooby Snax
- Red Giant
- Mr. Bad Guy
- Geeked Up
Use of synthetic marijuana is alarmingly high, especially among high school students in the U.S. A 2012 Monitoring the Future survey found that one in nine 12 graders reported using synthetic cannabinoids in the past year.
How is Synthetic Marijuana Different from Organic Marijuana?
Organic marijuana is a natural plant that grows in the wild and is cultivated for medical and recreational purposes. Real marijuana contains more than 100 cannabinoids, including THC, the intoxicating compound that causes euphoric effects.
Despite the name, synthetic marijuana is chemically not marijuana at all. Rather, synthetic marijuana includes active chemicals that attempt to merely mimic THC’s biological effects. However, synthetic marijuana produces very different effects than organic marijuana, as it’s been found to be anywhere between 2 to 100 times more potent than natural THC.
Despite organic marijuana being much safer, some people smoke synthetic marijuana to avoid a positive drug test. Not consisting of any THC, synthetic marijuana could not be tested for in the past and still does not show up on most standard drug tests. However, new specialized urine-based tests have been developed that can detect synthetic marijuana.
Synthetic marijuana is typically less expensive than natural marijuana, prompting some consumers to unfortunately disregard the high health risks of synthetic marijuana to save money. An ounce of organic marijuana can cost $200 to $300, while the price for a 1-ounce bag of synthetic marijuana typically ranges anywhere between $10 and $50.
Is Synthetic Marijuana Legal?
Synthetic cannabinoid products are for the most part no longer legal in the United States. With that said, it’s difficult for law language to keep up with ever-changing synthetic drug formulations.
Since first appearing in stores in the mid-2000s when state or federal drug laws did not specifically ban their substances, specific synthetic cannabinoids have been made illegal under federal law. The Drug Enforcement Agency in 2011 used emergency protocols to temporarily schedule the substances found in synthetic marijuana products.
The next year, in 2012, President Barack Obama signed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act to permanently place 15 synthetic cannabinoids and several other classes of psychoactive substances into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. This classifies these specific synthetic cannabinoids among the most restrictive substances.
The problem for lawmakers, however, is that the chemical structures used in these synthetic marijuana products can be recombined in a way to evade prohibition. New synthetic drugs are continually being created.
Despite some manufacturers trying to get away with selling synthetic cannabinoids by packaging them with “not for human consumption” labeling, many states have also enacted criminal and civil penalties for the sale of synthetic marijuana products. States like New Hampshire, Nebraska, and New York have cracked down.
Are There Risks Associated with Using Synthetic Marijuana?
The greater potency of synthetic marijuana often results in medical and psychiatric emergencies. Synthetic marijuana is an unregulated and dangerous chemical substance that can cause users to act erratically and experience respiratory problems that cause them to collapse.
While natural marijuana has never been reported as the sole cause of a fatal overdose, lab-made synthetic cannabinoids can be deadly. At least 20 deaths have so far been linked to the use of synthetic marijuana. Emergency room visits related to synthetic cannabinoid use rose sharply in the early 2010s, with the more recent annual data numbers reaching almost 30,000.
A toxicologist investigating the effects of synthetic marijuana observed more than 30 instances in which teenagers had negative reactions, such as:
- Severe agitation
- Elevated heart rates
- Dilated pupils
- Suicidal thoughts
- Additional problems with their cardiovascular and central nervous systems
The National Institute of Drug Abuse also details the dangers of controversial synthetic marijuana, including causing users to experience “anxiety and agitation, nausea and vomiting, high blood pressure, shaking and seizures, hallucinations and paranoia, and they may act violently.”
Additionally, the contents of synthetic marijuana are unpredictable because manufacturers frequently change the chemicals used in the manufacturing process.
How to Recognize Synthetic Marijuana
You can tell synthetic marijuana apart from real marijuana by their differences in appearances and scent.
Difference in Appearances
Real marijuana is sold as dried flower buds. If you look close you will see it is covered in fine white or orange “hairs” and every 90 degrees a node or hub comes off its stem. When purchased from a dispensary, it is typically packaged in jars or clear or opaque plastic barrier bags with a resealable closure.
Synthetic marijuana on the other hand looks like ground-up grass or other plant material. Because it is usually made out of different plants, it looks like a mix and resembles potpourri. Synthetic marijuana is most typically sold in small, colorful packets that label the contents as “incense” or “potpourri.” Packages are also commonly labeled as “not for human consumption” to bypass U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations.
Differences in Scent
Real marijuana has a distinct, strong musky odor that is often compared to the scent of a skunk.
The odor of synthetic marijuana is completely different, and is often described as stale, stinky, pungent, or wet. In some cases, it may have a slight odor of whatever the substance is labeled as. You may also find it smells like chemicals.
How to Avoid Buying Synthetic Marijuana
The best way to avoid buying synthetic marijuana is to be selective of where you buy your cannabis.
If you live in a state where recreational or medical marijuana is legal, you can easily avoid buying synthetic marijuana by only purchasing from licensed dispensaries. Reputable medical or recreational marijuana dispensaries only sell regulated cannabis products, so you won’t find any fake or synthetic marijuana products there.
If you make purchases from dealers online or in gas stations, convenience stores, novelty shops, or smoke shops, you leave yourself susceptible to buying synthetic marijuana products.
The same is the case when buying from individual dealers operating on the illegal market. While most are selling real marijuana flower, some have been caught selling synthetic marijuana.
Those who live in states where cultivating marijuana is legal also have the option to grow their own real plants at home for personal use.