Synthetic Marijuana: It’s Synthetic, But Not Marijuana

Synthetic marijuana (aka K2 or Spice) is highly potent and very dangerous

Posted Aug 01, 2013

Here's a story that’s becoming familiar to parents, young people, and plenty of doctors. A perfectly normal teen makes a choice that seems totally natural to many around her: She turns to a synthetic drug to get high.

In the case of Emily Bauer, it was synthetic marijuana, sometimes known as “Spice” or K2. She ended up in the hospital. But this wasn’t a brief visit to the ER. Her doctors put her into a coma to protect her, and she had several major strokes. Updates from her family discuss a slow recovery from her severe brain injury: relearning to use her right arm, recognizing colors, and crying over having to wear a diaper.

If you’re smoking synthetic marijuana, or your child is using it, but you’ve let it slide since you don’t think marijuana is a big deal, it’s time to take another look at it. For starters, it’s not marijuana. And its dangers are real, and they warrant extreme caution. 

The drug is called synthetic marijuana because it stimulates the same receptors in the brain that marijuana does. Since so many people think that marijuana is harmless (it’s not, as I discuss in a previous post), they often give the synthetic version more of a free pass than it deserves.

The actual grown-from-nature marijuana is known to cause mood disorders, memory deficits, anxiety problems, and for an unfortunate few, even psychosis. Still, I have never seen nor heard of marijuana causing some of the instantaneous and severe problems that have been linked to synthetic marijuana. News stories have recently highlighted teens suffering from strokes after using it (Emily’s not the only one), becoming psychotic and suicidal, and suffering from kidney damage.

Those are wide-ranging complications, which may be due to the fact that the drug itself isn’t just one drug. K2 or Spice can refer to many different chemicals. 

The stuff that’s sold in packets that are often brightly labeled -- usually with the words, “Not meant for human consumption” -- is often a hodgepodge of herbs and spices with the synthetic active ingredient sprayed onto the plant material.

Some of the main forms of synthetic marijuana that users buy are JWH-018, JWH-073, JWH-200, and CP47,497. (JWH are the initials of John W. Huffman, the Clemson University scientist who originally created the compound.)  Different ratios of JWH-018, CP47,497, and their analogues have been found in different brands of synthetic marijuana. Several years ago, researchers found that the amount of JWH-018 in a sampling of products varied from 0.2 percent to 3 percent.

 In general, the compounds that make up synthetic marijuana are dramatically more potent than marijuana, stimulating the central nervous system’s cannabinoid receptors 10 times more potently than marijuana itself. 

At lower doses, synthetic marijuana generally produces relaxation, sleepiness, and lowered blood pressure. But given the caveats above, these generally pleasurable sensations are not guaranteed. At higher doses, the compounds commonly found in Spice can cause delusions and paranoia. Users can also end up with increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, and agitation. 

As of March 1, 2011, five cannabinoids, JWH-018, JWH-073, JWH-200, CP47-497, and cannabicyclohexanol (an analogue of CP47-497), were illegal in the United States. But in an effort to stay ahead of the law, manufacturers are constantly altering their formulas, leaving the actual ingredients in any particular packet anybody’s guess. Some of the ingredients that have been found in synthetic marijuana are also used in fertilizers, potent analgesics, or cancer treatments.  Given the ever-evolving nature of synthetic marijuana, who knows what might lurk in future versions of K2 or Spice?

The bottom line is this: When you use synthetic marijuana, you don’t really know what you’re using. And you can’t predict whether you’ll end up with a relaxing high … or a brain injury.