The Dangers of Synthetic Marijuana

By Jessica Zimmer 09/24/14
What is actually in synthetic weed? You'll be surprised. What is the high like? More surprise. Is it worth it? Read on.
Keep off the (fake) grass Shutterstock

Across the United States, synthetic marijuana has been commonly thought of as a cheap version of natural cannabis. It is about to be unmasked for what it really is—a chemical spray of unknown strength, often accompanied by severe side effects.

Barbara Carreno, spokesperson at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) headquarters, says that there are over 400 varieties of synthetic marijuana. 

“The drugs originally come from (India and the Middle East, but mainly) China, and are in powder form. They come in little pots, in smaller quantities, and (are) very potent,” said Carreno. 

A typical manufacturer receives the powder and dissolves it in acetone to create a liquid solution. They then spray it on plant material. As the solution dries, it leaves only the chemical, such as JWH-018, a painkiller; XLR-11, a cancer treatment drug; or JWH-18, used in fertilizers. The chemicals vary widely and many of them have not been tested on humans or animals.

Dr. Sherri Kacinko, a toxicologist with NMS Labs in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, says, “(I joke) if you’re going to do these, give me a call. Give me your blood and urine, because we’re not even allowed to give them (types of synthetic marijuana) to rats.” 

Carreno says the DEA has seen synthetic marijuana “being mixed with rakes in feed troughs, other times in cement mixers…and on tarps in storage units or garages.” 

All a manufacturer has to do is print packaging, insert the plant material, and then deliver it to a willing buyer. Fortunately, the chemicals that are sprayed on the plant material do not interact with the plants themselves. 

“The plant material…is inert material, like Damiana leaf,” said Kacinko. Damiana is a desert shrub native to Southwest Texas. 

Packages of synthetic marijuana list a number of plants as ingredients, including lion’s tail, lotus, and honey-weed. Genetic testing has revealed that the plants listed on the package are often not actually included. 

The potency of the chemicals is “hit or miss,” said Carreno.

Some batches are extremely strong, while others are relatively mild. The same brand name on two different packages leaves no clue as to the strength of what is actually contained inside. 

“There’s no quality control here. We’ve seen K2 (a variety of synthetic marijuana) packages that look identical and contain completely different substances,” said Kacinko. 

The health risks of synthetic marijuana are numerous. 

Care Esperanza, C.E.O, RN, and certified addiction specialist at Acadiana Addiction Center in Lafayette, Louisiana, says the effects of the drug include “(being) zoned out, delayed responses, and kind of looking at the ceiling (and doing nothing).” Esperanza has also seen patients suffer from hallucinations lasting as long as two weeks (“seeing bedbugs that weren’t there”), loss of cognitive functions, and elevated liver functions. The latter is a sign of liver damage. 

Across the country, documented effects of synthetic marijuana have included: death, increase in heart rate and blood pressure, muscle twitching and agitation; the occurrence of seizures, psychotic episodes, heart attacks, and strokes; kidney damage, (especially in association with the use of packages containing XLR-11) and finally paranoia and weight loss. 

Esperanza says that synthetic marijuana, unlike natural marijuana, induces a decrease in appetite. “They start eating again after they’re done with detox.” She is most worried about individuals who relapse. 

“They’re not coming back (cognitively, or to the clinic), especially the younger ones,” said Esperanza.

The demographic for synthetic marijuana varies. Occasionally a user is over 70, with a little less than half of users being over 30. 

Kacinko says that for NMS Labs’ testing, the median user was “24, 25” and “80% (likely to be) male.”

Mike Van Dyke, toxicology branch chief for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), said that of 221 cases from Colorado emergency rooms involving the use of synthetic marijuana in August and September of 2013, 59% of those cases were under 30 (and) 75% were male.

“I think that’s fairly typical for drug use,” said Van Dyke.

Van Dyke says he believes that natural marijuana and synthetic marijuana have different audiences. 

“Regular users of marijuana tend not to like the synthetic marijuana. They’re like, 'Why would you ever do that? Just use real marijuana,' said Van Dyke.

Erik Altieri, communications director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law (NORML), agrees.

“Anecdotally, we’ve heard a lot of stories, and most people don’t seem to enjoy it. It makes people feel jittery, uncomfortable, and paranoid,” said Altieri.

Esperanza reports that synthetic marijuana offers a “more profound high,” one that is typically far more powerful than natural marijuana.

Altieri says synthetic marijuana is “very much a cousin to alcohol’s bathtub gin. It’s forcing people to choose a much more dangerous product. Most people who use it prefer to choose natural marijuana.”

The main attractions of synthetic marijuana are that it is cheaper than recreational marijuana; it is more widely available in smoke shops, online, gas stations, and in paraphernalia shops; and it typically does not show up on a drug test. This last factor is changing. Labs such as NMS are fast developing tests for more varieties of synthetics. 

NMS now tests for approximately 20 varieties of synthetic marijuana. No employer, however, has the money, let alone the ability, to test for all of the varieties that now exist.  

Van Dyke, Carreno, and Esperanza have heard that members of the military, oil field workers, those on probation or otherwise, who are required to take drug tests for the justice system are among the regular users of synthetic marijuana.

“They (heavy users) go buy one pack a day, then another, then another. (They’ll be up to) three to four grams a day,” said Esperanza. “A lot of them are only getting out of bed to go get more. (The oil field workers) take it offshore with them. (People don’t know what it is because) it appears from the outside to be like a marijuana high."

Nancy Jackson-Reno, communications specialist with New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services (NHDHHS), says it takes a great deal to halt an outbreak of the use of synthetics.

On August 14, 2014, Maggie Hassan, the governor of New Hampshire, declared a state of emergency when over 40 people in the Manchester and Concord areas were hospitalized due to the use of synthetic marijuana. NHDHHS “piggybacked” on the governor’s announcement, with two health alerts, key messages to 13 regional networks, a flurry of posters, and the delivery of talking points and letters to parents, law enforcement officers, school nurses, and retailers. 

“(The three key messages) were that any use of a synthetic drug is harmful; whatever the packages say, they’re not for human consumption; and (you should) call (them) synthetic drugs, not synthetic marijuana,” said Jackson-Reno. 

Van Dyke agrees with this last point. He says that after the summer of 2013, CDPHE held focus group sessions with teens to deter them from synthetic marijuana use.

“Many kids thought that synthetic marijuana was similar to regular marijuana. The message (we gave them) was that you really should try to equate it more to drugs like meth (amphetamine), because it’s created in a lab,” said Van Dyke.

Dr. Ruben Baler, a health scientist of the science policy branch of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), says he believes many users could suffer long-term consequences from the use of synthetic marijuana. 

“In a sense using some of these substances could be like an overdose...of (natural) marijuana,” said Baler. 

“10% of the population will become dependent on this compound (even though the compounds vary). The first stage (of recovery) is to recognize the problem and detoxify. It depends on what kind of a person we’re dealing with, for example is he or she willing or unwilling?” said Baler. 

Baler says the target audience for education regarding synthetic marijuana is younger people. “The young people perceive it as harmless (which makes it) a very difficult prevention problem. The world of drug addiction is a very individualized world. Every person will respond differently to different drugs."

Baler says the process of neurological development is “exquisitely orchestrated and very sensitive.” He says there is no question that the use of synthetic marijuana can impact a person’s mental development. 

“(Natural) marijuana (and synthetic marijuana) push the brain into a detour, and go through different trajectories (that were) not intended, particularly (for) reward centers,” said Baler. 

Kacinko also thinks synthetic marijuana has the potential to have lasting effects on the brain.  

There are two types of cannabinoid receptors in the body: CB1 and CB2. These are activated by synthetic cannabinoids, the active chemicals in synthetic marijuana.

The CB1 receptor is found mainly in the brain, but also in the lungs, liver, and kidneys. The CB2 receptor is found mainly in the immune system and hematopoietic cells. Hematopoietic cells are the blood cells in the body which give rise to all other blood cells and are found mainly in red bone marrow. 

“The CB1 receptor is where you get the high from, and CB2 (effects) nausea suppression and immune responses. Some of the compounds in this class (synthetic marijuana) only work at the CB1 receptor. They don’t have any of the positive effects,” said Kacinko. 

Among the questions that Kacinko and other researchers want to ask are: do the chemicals in synthetic marijuana act with other receptors in addition to CB1 and CB2? What other places in the body do these chemicals affect? 

Kacinko and Baler agree that the answers to these questions will explain the long-term health risks posed by synthetic marijuana varieties. Hopefully, further medical research and observations of recovering users will prove a powerful deterrent against the use of these dangerous drugs. 


Jessica Zimmer is a journalist as well as a criminal and civil defense attorney licensed in California and Florida.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Jessica Zimmer_jpg.jpg

Jessica Zimmer is an attorney who has worked as a news journalist for over 15 years. She has written for websites, newspapers, magazines, and companies. She has also worked as a copywriter and copy-editor for all sizes of businesses, both in the U.S. and abroad. Jessica writes about art, cannabis, education, engineering, law, music, politics, and transportation. Find her on Linkedin.