Addictive, mind-altering substances are becoming more and more commonplace. Everywhere you turn, new substances threaten to contribute to the growing addiction problem we’ve been seeing in the U.S. and abroad. In fact, it’s estimated that roughly one in every ten Americans is dependent on some chemical intoxicant,1 which puts this epidemic into perspective.
We’ve amassed a wealth of knowledge about the ways that many dangerous drugs affect the human physiology, but we’re continually confronted by new substances about which we still have much to learn. These unfamiliar substances become less mysterious over time as we learn more about them and how treacherous they can be. A prime example of this is the situation with synthetic marijuana, which has become popular because the substance is technically legal while cannabis remains illegal in most places. But could it be possible that synthetic marijuana is more dangerous than the real thing?
What Exactly Is Synthetic Marijuana?
It’s important to know what synthetic marijuana actually is to understand its effects and compare it with cannabis. Synthetic cannabinoids are most well-known by brand names such as K2 and Spice, which are how the substance is typically labeled in retail stores that sell the drugs. However, synthetic marijuana isn’t a single plant or substance like actual marijuana. Instead, synthetic marijuana is dried, shredded plant material that has been sprayed with one of a number of possible chemicals, which cause the substance’s intoxicating effects.
Most mind-altering substances belong to a specific class drugs. For example, heroin belongs to a class of drugs known as opiates. However, synthetic marijuana is widely considered to belong in a class known as new psychoactive substances, or NPS.2 The reason for this is because these drugs are psychoactive and almost psychedelic in their effects while being very much unregulated, attributing to the unpredictable effects that synthetic marijuana is known to produce.
What Does Synthetic Marijuana Do?
For users who purchase synthetic marijuana, the hope is that the substance will provide for them feelings similar to what they would experience after using cannabis. The effects of cannabis are the result of the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which bind with certain receptors in the brain. The crudely-made chemicals found in synthetic marijuana — called cannabinoids since they’re chemically similar to THC — are much stronger than organic cannabis, resulting in stronger bonds with brain receptors and stronger intoxicating effects. Specifically, synthetic cannabinoids can be up to 100 times more potent than THC, effectively making the drug poisonous to the brain.
When a user smokes synthetic marijuana, the intensity of the chemicals that the substance contains results in effects that differ significantly from the effects of traditional cannabis. Initially, the effects could be considered adjacent to cannabis with users feeling relaxed and mellow with only slightly altered perception. However, since there’s no uniformity in the chemicals used in the production of synthetic cannabis, there are additional effects that are unpredictable and oftentimes alarming.3 In many cases, users experience symptoms of psychosis while under the influence of synthetic marijuana, including hallucinations, delusions and intense paranoia. In fact, there have been a number of comparisons made between synthetic marijuana and bath sales due to the psychosis-like episodes users frequently exhibit after using the drug.
Are Synthetic Cannabinoids Even More Dangerous Than the Real Thing?
One of the scientists behind the creation of synthetic marijuana famously said that he couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to use the drug recreationally,4 comparing the drug to a game of Russian roulette. Clearly, synthetic marijuana is a substance that produces dangerous and unpredictable results, and there is growing agreement that synthetic cannabinoids are significantly more dangerous than actual cannabis.
First, it’s well-known that synthetic marijuana has been the cause of numerous overdose deaths while it’s virtually impossible for a person to overdose on cannabis alone. As well, there’s evidence that the human body struggles to metabolize the harsh manmade chemicals in synthetic marijuana, which is why the high caused by its use lasts so much longer than one would expect of a substance meant to be like cannabis.5 Also, synthetic cannabis isn’t regulated and is always changing what’s used during production, so there’s no way to predict the effects with consistency.
In fact, it’s the rapid evolution that has made the drug difficult to make illegal. Synthetic marijuana is usually sold under the guise of being intended for some other mundane purpose, such as being incense or potpourri. And since the chemicals used during the substance’s production change so frequently, it’s difficult for regulations to keep up.
When you consider that many people who use both cannabis and synthetic marijuana often use different types of drugs simultaneously, there is also the potential for synthetic marijuana to have lethal interactions with other substances users consume. Considering these numerous dangers, synthetic cannabinoids do indeed pose great danger to their users, perhaps well beyond the risks associated traditional marijuana.
Written by Dane O’Leary