Substance Use

Synthetic Marijuana: Side Effects and Potential for Overdose

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synthetic marijuana k2 spice in bag

Synthetic marijuana is more potent and dangerous than organic marijuana, but that is hardly enough information to understand the risks. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains that synthetic marijuana, or synthetic cannabinoids, encompasses a wide variety of illegal chemicals. All synthetic cannabinoids are manmade, but the chemicals they contain vary between types and manufacturers, and even from one batch to the next.

What’s Inside Synthetic Marijuana?

Most often, synthetic cannabinoids are sold in liquid format, allowing them to be vaporized in an e-cigarette or other device. However, synthetic cannabinoids can also be sprayed onto plant matter. When sprayed on plants, it makes it appear to be an herbal incense, which people smoke or use to brew tea.

Most often, the manufacturers of synthetic cannabinoids try to replicate the chemical makeup of natural cannabinoids. The hope is that the synthetic cannabinoids will bind to the brain’s receptors in a similar manner.

Some manufacturers even depart from the low standard of simply replicating natural cannabinoids. Instead, these manufacturers create chemicals that are poisonous to users. The fact that chemical formulas vary and change so often in synthetic cannabinoids is the biggest risk. This means there is no way for a user to know what is in the synthetic cannabinoids they’re taking and how harmful it is. 

Synthetic cannabinoids have been known to cause damaging and lasting effects on the body — and can even prove fatally toxic in some cases. 

Yet another aspect that makes synthetic marijuana so dangerous is the false advertising alongside its sale. In the United States, synthetic marijuana can sometimes be purchased at gas stations and online. However, most states have moved to illegalize synthetic marijuana. Often, synthetic marijuana is sold as a safe and legal alternative to actual marijuana, but that is rarely the case.

To avoid customs issues and law enforcement, synthetic marijuana is often sold in its plant matter form. Inside colorful foil packaging, it is labeled as, “incense,” and, “not for human consumption.” It will feature a label like K2, Spice, or other names. Because of this, the prevailing assumption is that it must be safe because it has been for sale, “legally,” — albeit under the guise of another product.

The Alarming Side Effects of Synthetic Marijuana

A number of alarming side effects can result from Spice or K2 use. Unfortunately, since the chemical makeup varies from one batch to the next, side effects can be hard to predict. The individual using synthetic marijuana, the amount they use, and how often they use it will also impact the side effects they experience.

Intense Side Effects

Common side effects include severe anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations, seizures, catatonia, elevated blood pressure, elevated heart rate, nausea, vomiting, and kidney failure. 

The withdrawal symptoms associated with synthetic marijuana are also intense. At its best, synthetic marijuana gives users a euphoric, mood-lifting effect, which is what makes it addictive. However, the half-life of most synthetic marijuana is just 75 minutes. This means the euphoric effects begin to wear off quickly, long before the drug is actually out of the body. Synthetic marijuana is believed to take 6–7 hours to leave the body in most cases.

Higher Risk of Overdose

Users experience short-lived euphoric effects with intense anxiety, depression, and mood swings to follow right after. Because of the intensity of withdrawal effects, the user is likely to continue using to attain the initial effect, putting more dangerous chemicals in the body. Thus, this puts synthetic marijuana users at a higher risk of overdose. The real risk is the likelihood of a user taking more of the drug before it fully leaves their system. Users do this to avoid the withdrawal symptoms and extend the high.

What makes synthetic marijuana more dangerous for the user is that the formulations can change from batch to batch. It can also contain toxic chemical additives that pose major risks, even in small amounts. So, even if a user has taken a certain amount of synthetic marijuana before, that does not mean they will react in the same way to the same amount next time they purchase it.

Why Do People Use Synthetic Marijuana?

With such alarming side effects and high risk of addiction and overdose, the continued consumption of synthetic marijuana can be confusing to non-users. However, the primary reason individuals continue to opt for synthetic marijuana is because of misconceptions surrounding the drug.

Many users believe in myths surrounding synthetic marijuana use, such as:

  • Synthetic marijuana is not addictive. There is a widespread assumption that natural marijuana is not addictive. This leads to people making the same assumption about its synthetic counterpart. In reality, the chemical formulation, intense euphoria, and withdrawal symptoms make it very addicting.
  • Synthetic marijuana will not appear on a drug test. The truth is that modern drug panels screen for a variety of chemicals, including those used in synthetic marijuana’s formulation.
  • Synthetic marijuana does not stay in the body as long as natural marijuana. How long synthetic marijuana stays in the body depends on the chemicals used in the formulation and their half-life. It can be detected in a saliva or blood sample for up to 48 hours after using it and in a urine sample for up to 72 hours after using it.
  • Synthetic marijuana is legal to purchase. The federal government’s crackdown on synthetic drugs like Spice and K2 has drawn a line in the sand. Still, it is up to states to rewrite legislation to stay on the right side of that line. Some state regulations remain in a gray area. Still, even though you can buy the product as “incense,” or under the guise of another name, that does not make it legal to use.

Regulations help empower law enforcement to better control drugs like synthetic marijuana. Yet, it is really up to public education and outreach efforts to reduce the use of synthetic marijuana. Improving the general public’s understanding of the severe risks attributed to synthetic marijuana use is crucial.

Potential for Overdose When Using Synthetic Marijuana

Unsurprisingly, the media has published countless stories regarding the use of synthetic marijuana. In 2012, CNN reported on a teen who was hospitalized in Houston after smoking the drug. She experienced a number of strokes, ultimately becoming paralyzed and blind in one eye. Severe brain damage left her unable to process her environment. This marked one of the worst cases of synthetic marijuana side effects that brought light to the issue.

More alarmingly, in the teen girl’s case, she experienced these horrendous effects after just two weeks of daily use. She participated in nine months of rehabilitation and was finally able to return to school, but without the ability to read or write. This tragic event is one of the many incidents where synthetic marijuana use resulted in hospitalization.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported 28,531 emergency room visits in 2011 due to synthetic marijuana use. That number had grown 2.5 times from the previous year.

Recent numbers surrounding synthetic marijuana use are limited due to recent legislative crackdowns on the substance. However, medical professionals are gaining vast knowledge and understanding regarding withdrawal, overdose, and recovery.

How Is Synthetic Marijuana Controlled?

Due to the nature of synthetic marijuana and how it is sold, it is extremely difficult for law enforcement to track down importers and sellers of the drug. Given that the drug is also distributed online as another product, it remains highly accessible. Its low price is also a major threat to at-risk individuals.

The primary targets of synthetic marijuana products are young adults. Public education is helping change that. Through outreach efforts, school systems and members of law enforcement are helping to reveal the dangers of Spice use. Many organizations seek to educate young adults on what they can do if they need help or know someone who does.

However, young adults are not the only ones who can be victims of synthetic marijuana use. The problem prevails amongst homeless and prison populations and in urban areas. Those already at risk or experiencing anxiety or depression are also at a greater risk of seeking out a stimulant like synthetic marijuana and becoming addicted to it.

Ultimately, there is no simple answer to fighting synthetic marijuana use. While the government has outlawed its many formulations, importers continue to work around the law to sell it as a product, “not for human consumption,” and that is exactly what consumers need to keep in mind. Synthetic marijuana is unsafe and highly addictive; it may require medical care to stop the cycle of addiction.

Detoxing From Synthetic Marijuana

Synthetic marijuana is considered highly addictive due to its intense but short-lived euphoric effects. This puts users at a higher risk of becoming dependent on synthetic marijuana. People take more as they try to avoid the equally intense withdrawal symptoms, which come in the form of depression, anxiety, and mood swings.

In the worst cases, withdrawal can lead to violent outbursts, paranoia, kidney failure, and long-term cardiovascular effects. It is difficult to detox from synthetic marijuana on one’s own and can be as comfortable as possible with the care of a medical team. By seeking out a rehabilitation center to help with synthetic marijuana use, one can be connected with the resources needed to succeed in recovery.

Rehabilitation centers often use a combination of mental, physical, and behavioral interventions and support techniques. Individual and group therapy can also be provided to guide individuals through long-term recovery. A treatment plan may also include medication management. Detoxification medications can help individuals reduce common withdrawal symptoms of anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Combined, these services help people overcome synthetic marijuana use.

Get Help in Recovery

Synthetic marijuana isn’t just dangerous — it could be life-threatening. Zinnia Healing believes everyone has the chance for a better life.

Call Zinnia Healing at (855) 430-9439 to learn more about the path to recovery.