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synthetic drugs

Dangers of Synthetic Marijuana

Synthetic marijuana is the term commonly used for a group of illicit or illegal products that contain a manmade chemical called a synthetic cannabinoid. All chemicals in this category get their name because they mimic the effects of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the main active ingredient in cannabis or marijuana. Since 2009, the use of synthetic marijuana has spread across the U.S. Unfortunately, people who consume this addictive drug knowingly or unknowingly expose themselves to a range of serious, severe or even fatal mental and physical health complications. Let’s take a closer look at this growing problem.

What Are Synthetic Cannabinoids?

Synthetic cannabinoids were created in laboratories by legitimate researchers studying the impact of THC on the human brain. However, their use quickly spread beyond these controlled settings and entered the world of illicit and illegal substances. There are now dozens of synthetic cannabinoids added to hundreds of plant-based products that go by names such as K2, Spice (the two most well-known varieties), Kronic, Kush and Joker. To avoid action from federal and state drug enforcement agencies, manufacturers commonly market these products as incense or potpourri. With the rise of e-cigarettes, some manufacturers have also started selling synthetic cannabinoids in liquid form.

Why Are They Dangerous?

While they mimic the basic effects of THC, synthetic cannabinoids are much stronger. In fact, any given chemical in this group is at least twice as potent as THC, and some chemicals exceed the potency of THC by 10 times or more. This means that anyone who uses synthetic marijuana receives a significantly larger dose of active ingredients than a person who uses actual marijuana. To make things even worse, products that contain synthetic cannabinoids are not monitored or regulated in any way. This means that people who use these products have no idea which specific cannabinoid they’re consuming. They also have no idea about the overall potency of a product or how much cannabinoid it contains per dose. For all of these reasons, each incidence of synthetic marijuana use resembles the drug equivalent of Russian roulette.

What Can Happen to You?

Because they access the same part of the brain as THC, synthetic cannabinoids produce some of the same basic effects as marijuana or other forms of cannabis. However, because these manmade chemicals are stronger than THC, they produce more intense forms of these brain changes. This fact helps explain the growing popularity of synthetic marijuana, since some of the intensified effects are viewed as desirable (e.g., a relaxed feeling and mood elevation). Unfortunately, it also explains why synthetic marijuana poses such a danger.

Psychosis, Suicidal Thinking and Aggression — While marijuana has a reputation as a relatively harmless drug, researchers and doctors have long known that a certain percentage of heavy users will develop a highly damaging mental state known as psychosis. Common symptoms of this state include powerful hallucinations, delusional and/or paranoid thinking, an inability to form clear thoughts, mental agitation and severe anxiety. Since synthetic cannabinoids are stronger than THC, synthetic marijuana users have an even greater chance of developing psychosis than marijuana/cannabis users. Synthetic marijuana users also have increased risks for involvement in suicidal thinking and/or acts of aggression toward other people.

Changes in Physical Health — Synthetic marijuana can also trigger mild, moderate or severe changes in your physical health. Again, the underlying source of risk is the sometimes extreme potency of synthetic cannabinoids. Potential problems include nausea, vomiting, a drastically increased heart rate, spikes in blood pressure, muscle tremors or spasms, full-body seizures and cardiac arrest (complete stoppage of the heart). In a very plausible worst-case scenario, a person under the influence of synthetic marijuana may stop breathing and die. Any of these issues can occur even at very low dosages. Since 2009, poison control centers across the country have received thousands of calls from people reporting users in states of serious physical distress.

Addiction — Addiction is a very real risk for habitual and/or heavy users of marijuana and other types of cannabis. Since synthetic cannabinoids act on the brain in the same way as THC, the same risk appears in people who use synthetic marijuana. Anyone who regularly uses this drug in plant or liquid form can develop the classic symptoms of addiction, including the onset of withdrawal when consumption falls off abruptly or comes to a complete halt. Indications of withdrawal in a synthetic marijuana user include a depressed or anxious state of mind, an unusually irritable state of mind and headaches.


National Institute on Drug Abuse: DrugFacts – Synthetic Cannabinoids

American Association of Poison Control Centers: Synthetic Cannabinoids

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Acute Poisonings from Synthetic Cannabinoids – 50 U.S. Toxicology Investigators Consortium Registry Sites, 2010–2015

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