How High Is Too High? Synthetic Cannabinoids Show the Dangers

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The contradiction is bizarre: Americans are terrified of toxic compounds and buy organic food to avoid the pesticides and chemicals that are sprayed on fruits and vegetables. Yet, there’s an increase in the number of individuals hospitalized for using synthetic cannabinoids.

Also called spice, K2, and fake weed, synthetic cannabinoids are mind-altering chemicals made in laboratories that are sprayed onto shredded plant material. The dried stuff can be rolled and smoked in a joint, while a liquid version is made to be vaped and inhaled using e-cigarettes and similar devices.

These weed imposters are easy to find. They’re sold legally in gas stations and head shops, and they’re often marketed as safe, natural marijuana alternatives. Unfortunately, these claims are extremely misleading. Synthetic cannabinoids have unpredictable side effects that can range from severe paranoia and hallucinations to kidney failure and heart attacks.

Natural vs. Synthetic Cannabinoids: What’s the difference?

When someone hears the term “fake weed,” they might assume the drug has an effect similar to marijuana. Really, there’s a big difference between the two substances and how they interact with the body. When a person smokes marijuana, THC attaches to the CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors in the brain to produce the desired effect. CBD, which is also present in marijuana, keeps the effects of THC under control.

Synthetic cannabinoids also contain THC, but they don’t have CBD, Dr. Deepak D’Souza who has studied the effects of cannabinoids and its links with psychosis for the past 20 years, told CBS News. D’Souza is a professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine. Without CBD, the psychoactive effects of THC are amplified. Plus, the chemical compounds in fake weed can be anywhere from 10 to 200 times more potent than THC on a dose-by-dose comparison. Beyond this, researchers aren’t exactly sure how spice affects the brain because the drug is unregulated and the chemicals can be different from one product to the next. However, some studies suggest that the diverse structures of fake weed may activate receptors other than CB1 and CB2, which could explain some of the dangerous side effects not seen with marijuana.

Fake weed is sometimes spiked with other drugs, like amphetamines or tranquilizers. In Illinois, nine people who were hospitalized for severe bleeding after using synthetic cannabinoids tested positive for brodifacoum, a lethal chemical used as rat poison.

Dangers and side effects of synthetic marijuana

Since early March 2018, 153 people in Chicago and central Illinois have become sick from using synthetic marijuana, and four people have died. All cases required hospitalization for coughing up blood, blood in the urine, severe bloody noses, and bleeding gums. The side effects of spice vary by the specific compounds present in each product, but users have reported vomiting, hallucinations, severe anxiety, panic attacks, seizures, and aggression. The long-term effects of synthetic cannabinoids aren’t yet known, but heart damage from myocardial ischemia and renal damage have been reported.

The bottom line: When you buy synthetic cannabinoids, you have no idea what’s really in the product you’re buying and smoking. If you want to get high, keep it natural.

About Author

Kate Kasbee is a health and wellness writer based in Chicago. She is the content creator, recipe developer and content strategist for the site Well Vegan and co-authored her first book "Frugal Vegan: Affordable, Easy and Delicious Vegan Cooking." Beyond health and wellness, Kate is an experienced travel and real estate writer, serving as a contributor to publications such as "Travel in Style" and "The Los Angeles Times Las Vegas Guide."

2 Comments

  1. This article is incorrect in suggesting that these “fake weed” products have THC. They do not have THC, they have other synthetic cannabinoids, the effects and safety of which are typically unknown. They use these other cannabinoids to try to avoid any scheduled substances and to not run afoul of the Analog Act. Please correct this article, this mistake is quite a big one.

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