What is Synthetic Cannabis?
Synthetic Cannabis, otherwise known by brand names such as K2 or Spice, is any designer drug that mimics the effects of cannabis. Synthetic Cannabis is something of a misnomer; according to Lewis Nelson, MD, a medical toxicologist at the NYU School of Medicine. Nelson states, “It’s really quite different (than natural cannabis) and the effects are much more unpredictable. It’s dangerous, and there is no quality control in what you are getting.” The term synthetic cannabinoid is more appropriate, since the term synthetic does not apply to the plant but rather to the chemicals that the plant contains – most notably, synthetic THC.
Research and Safety
Research in the safety of synthetic cannabinoids is now becoming available – and the results are alarming. Initial studies have been focused on the role of synthetic cannabinoids in psychosis. It has been found that synthetic cannabis may precipitate psychosis and in some cases may prolong it. Some studies suggest that synthetic cannabinoid intoxication is associated with acute psychosis, worsening of previously stable psychotic disorders, and it may trigger a chronic psychotic disorder among vulnerable individuals such as those with a family history of mental illness.
Reports describing effects seen in patients seeking medical care after taking synthetic cannabinoids have also been published. Compared to cannabis and one of its more known active cannabinoids, THC, the adverse effects are much more severe and can include hypertension, tachycardia, myocardial infarction, agitation, vomiting, hallucinations, seizures and convulsions. At least one death has been linked to overdose of synthetic cannabinoids and in Colorado three deaths in September of 2013 have been investigated for being linked to synthetic cannabinoids- whereas there are no overdose deaths related to use of natural cannabis.
These severe adverse effects in contrast to use of marijuana are believed to stem from the fact that many of the synthetic cannabinoids are full agonists to the cannabinoid receptors in the mammalian body, CB1R and CB2R, compared to THC which is only a partial agonist and thus not able to saturate and activate all of the receptor population independently, regardless of dose and resulting concentration.
Professor John W. Huffman, who first synthesised many of the cannabinoids used in synthetic cannabis, is quoted as saying “People who use it are idiots” and “You don’t know what it’s going to do to you.” In fact, a user who consumed three grams of Spice Gold every day for several months showed withdrawal symptoms, similar to those associated with withdrawing from the use of narcotics. In a separate case, psychologists treating a patient suffering from reactivated psychotic episodes after using Spice suggested that the lack of an antipsychotic chemical, similar to cannabidiol (or CBD) found in natural cannabis may make synthetic cannabis more likely to induce psychosis than natural cannabis.
The manufacturers of synthetic cannabis claim that their product contains a mixture of traditionally used medicinal herbs, each of which produce mild effects, with the overall blend resulting in the cannabis-like intoxication produced by the product. However, when the product was analyzed by laboratories in Germany and elsewhere, it was found that many of the characteristic “fingerprint” molecules expected to be present from the claimed plant ingredients were not present. There were also large amounts of synthetic tocopherol present. This suggested that the actual ingredients may not be the same as those listed on the packet, and a German government risk assessment of the product conducted in November 2008 concluded that it was unclear as to what the actual plant ingredients were, where the synthetic tocopherol had come from, and whether the subjective cannabis-like effects were actually produced by any of the claimed plant ingredients or instead caused by a synthetic cannabinoid drug which had been sprayed on the herb mixture.
Ultimately, the overwhelming anecdotal evidence and research provided by field professionals and laboratories suggest that synthetic cannabis is a dangerous product, and its use is inadvisable. This brings to question why products like these and other forms of manufactured cannabis have been explored at all, while natural cannabis with its minimal negative side effects has been demonized for generations. For one thing, Spice and its similar products do not show up on screenings for drug tests that show the presence of cannabis in the human body. The legalization of cannabis use, amongst other purposes, could someday remove the pressure from individuals who feel the need to use a decidedly dangerous product like synthetic cannabis to avoid the penalties for ingesting their medication. It is up to you – the public – to help determine the course of our society’s attitude towards cannabis, and whether or not we are able to achieve a future where individuals will be able to access the plant that benefits their lives without fear of alienation or ostracization from their communities and families.