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What to Know About Synthetic Marijuana (Fake Weed) Use

Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Synthetic cannabinoids, also called synthetic marijuana or fake weed, have been used by many as an alternative to marijuana since products were first introduced in 2002. Despite the fact that these man-made products were created in laboratories to help scientists study the cannabinoid system in the human brain, they often claim to be made of “natural” material from a variety of plants.

Hundreds of synthetic cannabinoids exist and the effects can be unpredictable and even life-threatening.

Also Known As: There are countless fake weed products being sold as herbal smoking blends, legal bud, herbal smoke, marijuana alternatives, fake weed, or herbal buds. This makes it difficult for parents and other adults to identify them. Some of the brand names include Blaze, Blueberry Haze, Dank, Demon Passion Smoke, Genie, Hawaiian Hybrid, K2, Magma, Ninja, Nitro, Ono Budz, Panama Red Ball, Puff, Sativah Herbal Smoke, Skunk, Spice, Ultra Chronic, and Voodoo Spice.

Drug Class: Synthetic marijuana products are classified as new psychoactive substances (NPS), or unregulated mind-altering substances intended to produce the same effects as illegal drugs.  

Common Side Effects: Side effects of the drug include elevated mood, relaxation, altered perception, symptoms of psychosis, extreme anxiety, confusion, paranoia, hallucinations, violent behavior, suicidal thoughts, rapid heart rate, raised blood pressure, vomiting, kidney damage, and seizures.

How to Recognize Fake Weed

Synthetic marijuana often contains a mixture of dried leaves from traditional herbal plants. They are various colors, including green, brown, blonde, and red, and often sold in small packets approximately two by three inches. The packets are often colorful foil packs or plastic zip bags. Some online sellers of legal fake weed products do so with disclaimers like “not for human consumption.”

What Does Synthetic Marijuana Do?

Fake weed works on the same brain cell receptors as THC or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that gets you high). It is typically smoked, brewed in tea, or vaped.   Many of these products are legally marketed as “herbal incense” or “potpourri”.

Some people who use herbal buds say that it produces a high similar to that of marijuana, but it doesn’t last as long. Others experience a relaxed feeling, rather than the “head high” that real marijuana produces. Also of note is the “harsh” taste, which people say “makes your throat burn and your lungs ache” long after you smoke.

Since there are no standards for making, packaging, or selling synthetic weed, it’s impossible to know the type and amount of chemicals in each product as well as what the fake weed will do to you.

What the Experts Say

Although they are often marketed as “100% organic herbs,” none of the fake weed products on the market are completely natural. They have all been found to contain various synthetic cannabinoids, or chemicals produced in laboratories.

Originally, fake marijuana products contained a chemical called HU-210, which has a molecular structure very similar to THC. Because HU-210 is listed as a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States, these fake weed products were manufactured and sold only in Europe.

Since then, new synthetic cannabinoid agonists have been created. They are too numerous to list. Some are similar in structure to THC; others are not. Some are classified as controlled substances. By using different synthetic marijuana mixtures, manufacturers are able to continue to legally market their products in the United States when another formulation becomes illegal.

According to the DEA, the majority of these chemical compounds are produced in Asia with no regulations or standards.   They are then smuggled into the United States where they are sprinkled onto “plant material,” packaged and ultimately sold in tobacco shops, convenience stores, and the like.

Some of these chemicals are still legal. However, since synthetic marijuana first hit the market, more than 20 of these compounds have become controlled in some way at the federal level.   At the same time, they noted that more than 75 additional compounds have been identified but are not currently controlled.  

In 2015, the DEA listed 15 varieties of synthetic marijuana as Schedule I controlled substances in the Drugs of Abuse resource guide. This places them in the same federal category as heroin, crack cocaine, and marijuana.

Many people buy into the idea that fake marijuana products are safe since the chemicals are “legal” and contain “natural” ingredients. However, this has proven to be false with multiple cases of severe, unexplained bleeding or bruising, and some deaths.   Other reports show an increase in emergency room visits due to rapid heart rate, vomiting, violent behavior, suicidal thoughts, kidney damage, and seizures.

Off-Label Uses

Some of the fake marijuana products sold commercially claim to contain herbs traditionally used for medicinal purposes, including:

  • Beach bean (Canavalia maritima)  
  • Blue Egyptian water lily (nymphaea caerulea)
  • Dwarf skullcap (scutellaria nana)
  • Indian warrior (pedicularis densiflora)  
  • Lion’s tail (leonotis leonurus)
  • Indian lotus (nelumbo nucifera)
  • Honeyweed (leonurus sibiricus)

However, one study revealed that some of the herbal ingredients listed by the manufacturers could not be found in the products.

Beyond the synthetic cannibinoid HU-210, which is used by scientists to identify cannibinoid receptors in the brain and study the effects Δ-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ-9-THC), there are no approved or off-label medical uses for synthetic marijuana.

Common Side Effects

While research is advancing, the effect synthetic marijuana products may have on the human body is largely unknown. To date, few studies have been published testing the effects of the chemicals on users. Within the DEA report, they note overdoses that have caused fatal heart attacks.   Similarly, acute kidney injury resulting in hospitalization and dialysis have been connected to these synthetics.

One study compared the level of impairment for drivers who were arrested for intoxicated driving.   One group had smoked synthetic cannabinoids and those in the other group were high on marijuana. The study found a significant increase in confusion, disorientation, and incoherence in the synthetic marijuana group. Slurred speech, a side effect not normally associated with natural cannabis use, was also reported among the synthetic cannabinoid users.

Beyond the short-term effects mentioned, an increase in blood pressure, as well as seizures, tremors, and anxiety, have been noted in synthetic marijuana users.

Whether these observed symptoms will have lasting effects, particularly on adolescents and young adult users, is not yet known. Of course, smoking any substance could have negative effects on the lungs.

“The problem with JWH-018 (a synthetic cannabinoid compound) is that absolutely nothing is known regarding its toxicity or metabolites,” says John Huffman, who helped develop the JWH-018 chemical. “Therefore, it is potentially dangerous and should not be used.” JWH-018 is also known as 1-Pentyl-3-(1-naphthyl) indole and is one of the Schedule I controlled substances listed with the DEA.

Recently, a version of synthetic marijuana was laced with rat poison, causing uncontrolled bleeding in hundreds of people and killing several others who ingested the tainted products.

If you or a loved one has used synthetic marijuana and begin experiencing severe, unexplained bleeding or bruising, call 911 or asked a loved one to take you to the hospital immediately. These are all signs of contaminated cannabinoid products.

Signs of Use

If you are a parent of a young adult, it pays to know the behaviors and physical effects of using fake weed. While exhibiting one or two of these signs might not mean that your child is using, they are all strong indicators of drug use and should be taken seriously.

  • Burning incense
  • Buying or using eye drops
  • Possessing dried plants or herbs
  • Having rolling papers or vape pens
  • Receiving suspicious packages in the mail
  • Displaying unusual or secretive behaviors
  • Restlessness  
  • Red or irritated eyes
  • Pale complexion  
  • Acting confused

Myths and Common Questions

Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about herbal bud is that it is “natural marijuana.” It is not; it is created from any of several hundred man-made synthetic chemicals that are sprayed onto the chopped plant material.

Synthetic marijuana is also far more potent, containing TCH analogs or synthetic cannabinoids that can be up to 600 times more potent than THC found in marijuana.   Often, additives, toxic impurities, and other types of drugs are also found in fake weed products.

Tolerance, Dependence, and Withdrawal

Regularly using “fake weed” can result in increased tolerance, or needing more and more of the drug to experience the same high. If you regularly use synthetic cannabinoids, you can also become both physically and psychologically dependent. This means if you stop abruptly, you’ll likely experience withdrawal symptoms.

Since the chemical composition of fake weed is unknown and can change from batch to batch, tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal may also vary.

How Long Does Fake Weed Stay in Your System?

How long synthetic cannabinoids stay in your system depends on several factors, including the type, how it is administered (i.e., inhaled or ingested), amount consumed, and frequency of use. Since these synthetic drugs don’t trigger a positive result on most standard urine drug tests   , many people turn to these drugs in an attempt to avoid positive drug screens for employment, rehab, or legal reasons.

Addiction

Long-term, regular use of synthetic cannabinoids can lead to addiction. If you have a history of mental illness or a substance use disorder, the risk of addiction is even greater.

In addition to building up a tolerance and experiencing symptoms of withdrawal, other signs of synthetic cannabinoid addiction can include:

  • You use more than intended, even after telling yourself that you’ll only “take a few hits.”
  • You are unable to cut down or stop and have likely failed numerous times at quitting.
  • You spend lots of time getting high, often at the expense of spending time with loved ones or doing activities you once enjoyed.
  • You continue to use despite any problems with family and friends, employment, or legal troubles.
  • You depend on the drug to “relax” or for creativity.

Withdrawal

Symptoms of synthetic weed withdrawal can range from mild to severe, depending on how frequent and how long you have been using, and include the following:

  • Headache  
  • Severe anxiety
  • Depression  
  • Irritability

How to Get Help

If you suspect that someone you love is using synthetic marijuana, the most important thing you can do is spend time with them, communicate the dangers of fake weed, and watch for any signs of use. While behavioral therapies and medications have yet to be specifically tested for the treatment of synthetic cannabinoid addiction, a health care professional can work with you and your loved one to safely detox from the drug as well as identify and treat any co-occurring mental illness.

In addition to getting a recommendation from a trusted health care professional, the Partnership at DrugFree.org has a helpline and tips so families know what to ask when vetting a rehab.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Learn what experts have to say about synthetic marijuana or "fake weed" as well as common side effects, myths, signs of use, and risk for addiction.

How to make fake weed

Synthetic cannabinoids like K2 and Spice get pegged as “synthetic cannabis” or “fake weed” although these human-made chemicals don’t come from the cannabis plant. In fact, chemically speaking, they bear little resemblance to naturally occurring cannabinoids like THC and CBD.

Research scientists often use synthetic weed to skirt government restrictions while studying the endocannabinoid system, the cellular network responsible for cannabis’s psychoactive effects and its other therapeutic effects. But, starting in the mid-2000s, synthetics became popular among partiers for the same reason: they’re legal in some places, including areas where weed is completely outlawed.


How Synthetic Weed Is Made

If synthetics don’t come from the plant, where do they come from? At best, they come from licensed laboratories with strict operating procedures. At worst, they come from underground facilities that continually tweak the formulas of substances to stay one step ahead of the law. Some folks make synthetics from home using dirty DIY recipes.

Technically, synthetic weed like Spice isn’t one thing. These weed knock-offs contain a mix of synthetic cannabinoids, often ordered from Chinese companies, that are later dissolved in rubbing alcohol or acetone. The mix gets sprayed on legal herbs like catnip, though some garage chemists use tobacco instead.

So synthetic weed may (kind of) look like real weed, but that’s all for show. Really, there’s no way to tell what’s actually in a bag of K2 or Spice, since labels don’t include a full list of ingredients or their amounts.

The lack of transparency creates headaches for authorities. Law enforcement struggles to track synthetic cannabinoid products since some formulas can contain hundreds of active components, and forensic chemists need some idea of what they’re looking for to properly analyze samples. If there’s an overdose, doctors won’t know which compounds to counteract.


Why Synthetics Are Dangerous

Synthetic cannabinoids pose serious health risks, even at low doses. Vomiting, rapid heart rate, and internal bleeding are common side effects. Death is uncommon but very much possible.

How does synthetic weed damage the body? Scientists aren’t entirely sure, but it likely involves the endocannabinoid system. Natural cannabinoids like THC activate the brain’s cannabinoid receptors to regulate cell signaling, such as reducing pain signals or enhancing feelings of well being.

Fake weed, on the other hand, likely binds much tighter to these same receptors than THC does, warping the cell signals.

Imagine THC is a key that fits perfectly into a lock, the cannabinoid receptor. The key goes in, twists the lock open, and the door opens normally. In contrast, synthetic cannabinoids act more like shotguns blowing doors right off the hinges.


Yet Another Reason Why We Need Legal Weed

While synthetic weed isn’t nearly as popular as genuine green, it’s still a public health crisis. Many jurisdictions have made synthetic cannabinoids illegal, and sports leagues ban their use.

Just how bad has fake weed become? In 2015, VICE reported that synthetic cannabinoids triggered an epidemic among Brooklyn’s homeless population.

“It’s insane,” one EMT told VICE. “I’m spending my entire tour over at the shelter. But it makes sense, because for five or six bucks you can roll four or five big blunts of this stuff. And the stronger they make it, the more the disenfranchised population is gonna be attracted to it.”

In 2016, the New York Times reported that over 130 people overdosed on K2 in New York City across a three-day period. That same year, the son of DC’s former mayor, Marion Barry, died from smoking K2.

Celebs have had bad experiences with fake weed, too. Talk-show host Wendy Williams claimed her son once reacted horribly to synthetics.

In 2012, actress Demi Moore called 911 after she suffered convulsions from a drug “similar to incense.” Some doctors suspected synthetic weed was the culprit.

Not all synthetics are necessarily bad, however. Dronabinol, sold under the brand name Marinol, is a synthetic version of THC used to treat nausea or lack of appetite in cancer patients.

If anything, synthetic cannabis like K2 and Spice prove that drug laws need to be reformed. After all, if weed is legal everywhere, why would anyone want the bunk, deadly version?

Synthetic cannabis like K2 and Spice may seem like convenient, legal alternatives to genuine weed… but they’re nothing like the Real McCoy. ]]>