Synthetic Cannabinoids (K2/Spice): Facts, Side Effects & Warning

What are synthetic cannabinoids?

cannabinoids are human-made mind-altering chemicals that are either sprayed on
dried, shredded plant material so they can be smoked or sold as liquids to be
vaporized and inhaled in e-cigarettes and other devices. These products are
also known as herbal or liquid incense.

These chemicals are called cannabinoids because they are similar to chemicals found in the marijuana plant. Because of this similarity, synthetic cannabinoids are sometimes misleadingly called “synthetic marijuana” (or “fake weed”), and they are often marketed as safe, legal alternatives to that drug.

In fact, they are not safe and may affect the brain much more powerfully than marijuana; their actual effects can be unpredictable and, in some cases, more dangerous or even life-threatening.

Synthetic cannabinoids are part of a group of drugs called new psychoactive substances (NPS). NPS are unregulated mind-altering substances that have become newly available on the market and are intended to produce the same effects as illegal drugs.

Some of these substances may have been around for years but have reentered the market in altered chemical forms, or due to renewed popularity.

sell these products in colorful foil packages and plastic bottles to attract
consumers. They market these products under a wide variety of specific brand
names. Hundreds of brands now exist, including K2, Spice, Joker, Black Mamba,
Kush, and Kronic.

For several years, synthetic cannabinoid mixtures have been easy to buy in drug paraphernalia shops, novelty stores, gas stations, and over the internet. Because the chemicals used in them have no medical benefit and a high potential for abuse, authorities have made it illegal to sell, buy, or possess some of these chemicals.

However, manufacturers try to sidestep these laws by changing the chemical formulas in their mixtures.

access and the belief that synthetic cannabinoid products are
“natural” and therefore harmless, have likely contributed to their
use among young people. Another reason for their continued use is that standard
drug tests cannot easily detect many of the chemicals used in these products.

The most
common way to use synthetic cannabinoids is to smoke the dried plant material.
Users also mix the sprayed plant material with marijuana or brew it as tea.
Other users buy synthetic cannabinoid products as liquids to vaporize in

What are the side effects of synthetic cannabinoids?

Effects on the brain

cannabinoids act on the same brain cell receptors as THC
(delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana.

So far,
there have been few scientific studies of the effects of synthetic cannabinoids
on the human brain, but researchers do know that some of them bind more
strongly than marijuana to the cell receptors affected by THC, and can produce
much stronger effects. The resulting health effects can be unpredictable and

the chemical composition of many synthetic cannabinoid products is unknown and
may change from batch to batch, these products are likely to contain substances
that cause dramatically different effects than the user might expect.

cannabinoid users report some effects similar to those produced by marijuana:

  • Elevated mood
  • Relaxation
  • Altered perception—awareness of surrounding objects and conditions

of psychosis—delusional or disordered thinking detached from reality

effects include:

  • Extreme anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Paranoia—extreme and unreasonable distrust of others
  • Hallucinations—sensations and images that seem real though they are

Other health effects

who have used synthetic cannabinoids and have been taken to emergency rooms
have shown severe effects including:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Vomiting
  • Violent behavior
  • Suicidal thoughts

cannabinoids can also raise blood pressure and cause reduced blood supply to
the heart, as well as kidney damage and seizures. Use of these drugs is
associated with a rising number of deaths.

Are synthetic cannabinoids addictive?

synthetic cannabinoids can be addictive. Regular users trying to quit may have
the following withdrawal symptoms:

  • Headaches
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability

therapies and medications have not specifically been tested for treatment of
addiction to these products. Health care providers should screen patients for
possible co-occurring mental health conditions.

Source: NIDA. (2018, February 5). Synthetic Cannabinoids (K2/Spice). Retrieved from on 2019, April 1

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