Synthetic marijuana is one of the best-known “designer drugs” on the market, and despite legal efforts to curb its use, it’s still a big public health problem. The dirty secret about synthetic marijuana (otherwise known as Spice, K2, Yucatan Fire, JWH-018 and other names) is that it’s nothing like marijuana. With symptoms ranging from agitation and vomiting to hallucinations, seizures, strokes, heart problems and even death, there’s a reason the drug’s creator, John W. Huffman, PhD, said using the drug was like playing Russian roulette. Recent deaths associated with the drug drive his point home quite clearly: just because it’s “legal” (although some varieties aren’t) doesn’t mean it’s safe. In an article for Forbes, Alice G. Walton lists six reasons synthetic pot is more toxic to the brain than the real thing.
1. Synthetic Pot Binds More Strongly in the Brain
The effects of drugs ultimately come down to how they interact with your brain. Marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient, THC, is what’s known as a “partial agonist,” meaning that it doesn’t fully activate the cannabinoid receptors in the brain that are responsible for its effects. Synthetic pot, on the other hand, is a full agonist, so it has the same sort of effects except much more strongly. Emergency room doctor Jeff Lapoint, MD, explains, “Synthetic cannabinoids are tailor-made to hit cannabinoid receptors – and hit hard. This is not marijuana. Its action in the brain may be similar, but the physical effect is so different.” In addition to this, experts also believe that the drug is up to 100 times more potent than natural marijuana, so it’s not surprising that life-threatening reactions occur.
2. Cannabinoid Receptors Are Everywhere in the Brain
The main cannabinoid receptor, CB1, is found throughout the brain. Given this fact and synthetic pot’s increased ability to bind to these receptors, it’s not surprising that a wide range of effects have been observed from the drug. As examples, psychiatrist, pharmacologist and neurologist Yasmin Hurd, PhD, points to the presence of CB1 receptors in the pre-frontal cortex to explain the stronger risk of psychosis from synthetic pot, the ones in the hippocampus for the greater impact on memory and those in the temporal cortex to explain the seizure risk. These are all affected by marijuana too, but the full binding of the synthetic pot to these receptors notably increases the risks.
3. Synthetic Pot Overdoses Aren’t Like Natural Pot Overdoses
According to Lewis Nelson, MD, of NYU’s Department of Emergency Medicine, “Pot users are usually interactive, mellow, funny. Every once in a while we see a bad trip with natural marijuana. But it goes away quickly. With people using synthetic, they look like people who are using amphetamines: they’re angry, sweaty, agitated.”
4. The Body Isn’t as Effective at Stopping Synthetic Pot
Recent research seems to indicate that synthetic pot’s metabolites (the “leftover” substances after the drug has been processed) bind to the receptors in the brain just as effectively as the drug itself. This doesn’t occur with THC, so synthetic pot will affect users for much longer than the natural drug. Additionally, in natural marijuana, cannabidiol lessens some of THC’s effects, but this isn’t present in synthetic marijuana.
5. Synthetic Marijuana Has No Quality Control
Since it’s made in clandestine laboratories, often in China, synthetic pot doesn’t have any sort of consistency. The makers simply choose any herb-like substance and spray it with cannabinoids (meaning that the “natural” appearance of the substance is wholly misleading). This not only means that there will probably be “hot spots” (concentrated areas of the drug), it also means you usually get four or five different cannabinoids, and there’s no way of knowing what they are. A bag of synthetic pot you buy today is completely different from one you buy tomorrow.
6. Synthetic Pot Is Constantly Evolving
The law is catching up with the manufacturers of these substances, but they can adapt much more quickly than legislation. When the first iteration of synthetic pot came out, politicians took several months to wise up and make some changes to the laws, but a mere week later, there was a completely new formulation on the market, unaffected by the new law. The evolution of these substances happens so quickly that lawmakers can’t keep up, and it compounds the issues resulting from the lack of quality control. Different chemical structures translate to differences in their effects on the brain, and since they’re all untested by their very nature, it really is like playing Russian roulette.
What Can We Do About Synthetic Pot?
Synthetic pot has a lot of experts worried for good reason: it leeches off the reputation of the illicit drug but is considerably more dangerous. Jeff Lapoint has three suggestions for minimizing the impact of synthetic pot. First, he recommends legal changes to help close loopholes more effectively, which would help with all designer drugs (where the same quality control and changing formula issues exist), not just synthetic pot. Second, education is critical, he argues, to ensure that people are well aware that this is not the same drug as pot, and if you take it you’re basically being a guinea pig for unknown substances. It isn’t an exaggeration to say this type of experimentation could kill you. Finally, he suggests continuing the discussion about legalization of marijuana: “You have to ask if you’re pushing people toward the scarier thing? The answer is ‘yes.’ It’s like prohibition where people made bathtub gin with methanol. We know people are going to use it. No athlete, soldier, student, or parolee wants to test positive for THC. So they just go to the head shop and get the ‘legal’ kind.” It doesn’t seem like synthetic pot is going to be an easy problem to solve, particularly because we risk glamorizing natural marijuana at the same time as demonizing the synthetic form. Marijuana legalization would undoubtedly reduce or even obliterate the market for these substances, but since marijuana is addictive, has negative effects on teen brains in particular and can lead to plenty of other problems on its own, it’s hardly an ideal solution. It may be the lesser of two evils, but we shouldn’t forget that natural or not, pot can cause problems.