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Synthetic cannabinoids

  • X
  • Tai High Hawaiian Haze
  • Spice
  • Mary Joy
  • Exodus Damnation
  • Ecsess
  • Devil’s Weed
  • Clockwork Orange
  • Bombay Blue Extreme
  • Blue Cheese
  • Black Mamba
  • Annihilation
  • Amsterdam Gold

Chemicals designed to act like the main psychoactive chemical in cannabis

How it looks, tastes and smells

What does it look like?

In their pure form, synthetic cannabinoids are either solids or oils. They are then added to dried herbs, vegetable matter or plant cuttings to make a smoking mixture (so that it looks more like real herbal cannabis).

The most commonly known synthetic cannabinoid is Spice.

The smoking mixtures are packaged in small, often colourful sachets with labels describing the contents as incense or herbal smoking mixture, and usually stating ‘not for human consumption’.

There are many different names given to herbal smoking mixtures, some of the most common are listed in the ‘Also called’ section at the top of the page.

There are many different brand names for smoking mixtures, but it is not uncommon for different brands to contain the same synthetic cannabinoids.

How do people take it?

Synthetic cannabinoids are normally used in a similar way to cannabis:

They can be mixed with tobacco, rolled up into a spliff or joint, and then smoked.

They can be smoked without tobacco using a pipe or bong.

As e-cigarettes have become more available, there are reports of some people using e-cig technology for synthetic cannabinoids, and that e-liquids containing synthetic cannabinoids have been produced that can be used with normal e-cigs.

They can also be swallowed, eaten with food or made into a drink.

How it feels

How does it make you feel?

Since synthetic cannabinoids act like cannabis, the effects – good and bad – are similar. Some users will feel happy and relaxed, may get the giggles, feel hunger pangs and become very talkative. Others mainly feel ill or paranoid.

Because synthetic cannabinoids react more strongly with the brain’s cannabis receptors they’re more potent than natural cannabis. This means it’s easier to use too much and experience unpleasant and harmful effects.

Synthetic cannabinoids act like THC, the active substance in natural cannabis, but are often more potent, so it’s easier to use too much and experience unpleasant and harmful effects.

Typical effects include:

Feelings of being happy, euphoric and relaxed, with some people gettings the giggles, feeling hunger pangs and becoming very talkative, while others get more drowsy.

Mood and perception can change, and concentration and coordination may become difficult. Synthetic cannabinoids, possibly because of their potency, are more likely to be associated with hallucinations than natural cannabis.

Some will have quite bad reactions, such as paranoia, panic attacks and forgetfulness.

Duration

How long the effects last and the drug stays in your system depends on how much you’ve taken, your size, whether you’ve eaten and what other drugs you may have also taken.

The risks

Physical health risks

The risks of synthetic cannabinoids are similar to natural cannabis, but because synthetic cannabinoids are more potent, it is easy to use too much and experience the unpleasant and harmful effects. This higher potency also means that the effects may last for longer.

Also, because many synthetic cannabinoids are new, they may have unknown effects too.

We know that there have been a number of deaths that have been associated with the use of synthetic cannabinoids, either on their own or with other substances. There may also be risks from smoking the plant material itself – as occurs with tobacco and cannabis smoking.

Reported side-effects from using synthetic cannabinoids include:

  • feelings of lightheadedness, dizziness, confusion and tiredness
  • feeling excited, agitated and aggressive
  • mood swings
  • anxiety and paranoia
  • suicidal thoughts
  • memory problems and amnesia
  • nausea and vomiting
  • hot flushes
  • increased heart rate and blood pressure, which may cause chest pains and damage your heart and even cause a heart attack
  • excessive sweating
  • fingers, toes or muscles feel numb and tingly
  • tremors, seizures and fits

Other risks for synthetic cannabinoids:

Research suggests that they may be an association between using synthetic cannabinoids and acute kidney injury.

Many synthetic cannabinoids have a chemical structure that is similar to serotonin, a natural chemical found in the body. It’s been suggested that there’s a risk that synthetic cannabinoids could overstimulate the serotonin system (called serotonin syndrome), which can result in high fever, rapid pulse, sweating, agitation, confusion, convulsions, organ failure, coma and even death.

Because of the way that smoking mixtures are made, there can be differences in the concentration of synthetic cannabinoids in individual packets and between different batches. You can never be 100% sure of how powerful a dose you are going to take.

Mental health risks

Synthetic cannabinoids are more likely to be associated with hallucinations than natural cannabis, possibly because of their potency.

Use of synthetic cannabinoids can cause psychotic episodes, which in extreme cases could last for weeks.

Regular use could cause a relapse of mental health illness or increase the risk of developing a mental illness, especially if you have a family history of mental illness.

What is synthetic cannabinoids cut with?

Synthetic cannabinoids are usually sold in ‘herbal’ smoking mixtures. Sometimes these smoking mixtures have been found not to contain any synthetic cannabinoids at all!

Any dried herbs, vegetable matter or plant cuttings can be mixed or sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids to make smoking mixtures. A number of different plants are often listed on the packaging of smoking mixtures, but these might not actually be present in the mixture.

It’s also possible that the dried herbs, vegetable matter or plant cuttings themselves may produce an unwanted effect or be covered in a toxic substance, such as a pesticide, or there may be residues of the solvents, such as acetone and methanol, used in the mixing/spraying process, remaining on the smoking mixture.

There have been a few studies carried out on the level of synthetic cannabinoids present in smoking mixtures which suggest that there can be differences in the concentration of synthetic cannabinoids in between different batches and packets. This could be because the mixing or spraying missed some of the smoking mixture or over-sprayed some of it.

The chemical composition of synthetic cannabinoids and the ingredients of smoking mixtures are changing all the time, so you can never be sure of what you’re getting, how powerful it is, and how it could affect you.

Mixing

Is it dangerous to mix with other drugs?

Mixing synthetic cannabinoids with alcohol or other drugs can be especially dangerous. It can increase the risks of both drugs and can lead to a greater risk of accidents or death.

Also, because synthetic cannabinoids can overstimulate the serotonin system, it is important to avoid mixing them with antidepressants, such as Prozac, as they both stimulate serotonin activity in the brain, which can lead to serotonin syndrome, causing high fever, rapid pulse, sweating, agitation, confusion, convulsions, organ failure, coma and even death.

Addiction

Can you get addicted?

Research suggests that you can become dependent on synthetic cannabinoids, especially if you use them regularly. Whether or not you’re dependent will be influenced by a number of factors, including how long you’ve been using it, how much you use and whether you are just more prone to becoming dependent.

If you have used synthetic cannabinoids regularly you could find it difficult to stop using and you might experience psychological and physical withdrawals when you do stop. The withdrawals can include cravings for synthetic cannabinoids, irritability, mood changes, loss of appetite, weight loss, difficulty sleeping and even sweating, shaking and diarrhoea.

The law

Class: Psychoactive Substances

This is a psychoactive drug and is covered by the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act, which means it’s illegal to give away or sell.

There’s no penalty for possession, unless you’re in prison.

Supply and production can get you up to 7 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both.

Like drink-driving, driving when high is dangerous and illegal. If you’re caught driving under the influence, you may receive a heavy fine, driving ban, or prison sentence.

If the police catch people supplying illegal drugs in a home, club, bar or hostel, they can potentially prosecute the landlord, club owner or any other person concerned in the management of the premises.

Additional law details

Synthetic cannabinoids and the law

  • Although some synthetic cannabinoids have been legal in the past, many have been illegal for some time. A large number of synthetic cannabinoids and any mixtures that contain illegal drugs, including brands like Black Mamba and Annihilation, are Class B drugs and are illegal to have, give away or sell.

    It’s important to realise that since 26 May 2016, when the Psychoactive Substances Act came into effect, none of these drugs are legal to produce, supply or import (even for personal use, e.g. over the internet) for human consumption.

    The synthetic cannabinoids that were made illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act, are still covered by that legislation. All other psychoactive substances not currently covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act now fall under the Psychoactive Substances Act.

    Worried about synthetic cannabinoids use?

    If you are worried about your use, you can call FRANK on 0300 1236600 for friendly, confidential advice.

    Similar to cannabis, or not? If you’re a bit hazy on the facts on synthetic cannabinoids, find out everything you need to know from FRANK.

    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.