Friday Factoids: Synthetic Marijuana: Frequently Asked Questions



What is synthetic marijuana?

  • A man-made substance that is allegedly supposed to mimic the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is a cannabanoid and the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.
  • The substance is manufactured and then coated on to dried herbs, which are ingested by smoking the substance.
  • It is now the 2nd most commonly abused illicit drug among high school seniors, behind traditional marijuana, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
  • Synthetic cannabinoids are significantly more potent than THC, with different effects, and different chemical structures.
  • It can be found in stores labeled as “incense” or “herbal incense,” and often has the label “not for human consumption.”


When I hear the term “synthetic drug,” does this mean synthetic marijuana?

  • There are two main forms of synthetic substances—synthetic cannabinoid and synthetic cathinone. Synthetic cannaboinoid is commonly called synthetic marijuana, while synthetic cathinone is more similar to cocaine and often called “bath salts.”


What are some common names for synthetic marijuana?

  • Spice, K2, Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. Smiley, Blaze, Black Mamba, Sexy Monkey, Genie, and others


You can buy this in the store, is it legal?

  • Yes and no. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has classified several synthetic chemicals (JWH-018; JWH-073; JWH-200; CP-47,497; cannabicyclohexanol) as a Schedule I substance. Since banned by the DEA, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will not approve the substance for human consumption.
  • As of March 2011, 20 states have imposed bans on these substances, with additional legislation pending in 37 states.
  • Being a Schedule I substance places these strands of synthetic marijuana in the same category as LSD and heroin. Schedule I drugs have a high potential for abuse, lacks accepted safety standards for use under medical supervision, and provides no currently accepted medical use.
  • Bans on this substance are not only found in the United States, but also in Britain, Germany, Poland, France, and Canada.
  • However, there are challenges in making the substances illegal because there are literally hundreds of formulations. Manufacturers of the substances are changing the ingredients quicker than states and the DEA can classify them as illegal.


How is synthetic marijuana similar to regular marijuana?

  • These substances are similar in appearance, consumption method of smoking, and feeling of euphoria after inhalation.


What makes this an attractive substance for users?

  • It is readily available in stores and online, and generally low cost. Additionally, synthetic marijuana does not typically show up on traditional urine drug screens.


What are the dangers of synthetic marijuana?

  • Research has found that the chemicals in synthetic marijuana are significantly more potent than the THC found in marijuana. Synthetic cannabinoids are full agnoists, meaning they bind to cannabinoid receptors and fully stimulate the receptors. THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in traditional marijuana is a partial agonist, which means THC only partially stimulates cannabinoid receptors.
  • Since synthetic marijuana is a man-made substance, potency can vary per package and per strand. This increases the potential for overdose.
  • Similarly, given the fact synthetic marijuana is a man-made substance, human error and how one batch is mixed is a factor in potency.
  • Also, there are quite a few significant negative effects or side effects.


What are the negative effects?

  • Seizures and convulsions, difficulty breathing, racing heart beat, elevated blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, loss of consciousness, stroke, paranoia, muscle twitching, agitation, anxiety, sweating, hallucinations, harmful effects on the cardiovascular and central nervous systems, lack of pain response, and lack of judgment.
  • The experience of paranoia, agitation, and hallucinations is common, even for those with no prior history of mental illness.
  • The impact on judgment and pain response has been associated with increased unpredictable, and dangerous behaviors, such as running into traffic.
  • It is common for users to require medical treatment and intensive care. It is also common for users to be involuntarily committed to psychiatric hospitals, especially when the cause of his or her erratic behavior is unknown.
  • Visits to the emergency room due to use of the substance has increased from 13 in 2009 to approximately 560 by early 2010. By December 2010, approximately 2500 calls related to synthetic marijuana use were made to poison control centers. Even more troubling, calls related to synthetic drugs quadrupled from 2010 to 2011, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC). Approximately 60% of cases involve individuals aged 25 and younger.
  • Use of synthetic marijuana can result in organ failure, kidney failure, respiratory failure, and death. Fatalities are often related to cardiac events, seizures, and hyperthermia.


How long can negative effects last?

  • While research is minimal, some studies do indicate there is a concern for possible short- and long-term effects after use.


Is it addictive?

  • Research in Germany indicated that the use of synthetic marijuana can lead to symptoms of withdrawal and “addictive behaviors.”


Has synthetic marijuana really caused such negative effects in people?

  • There have been reports in the news about male and female adolescents and adults experiencing significant complications after using synthetic marijuana. These instances have occurred in several states and are not limited to geographic region. There have been reports of a teenage female having a series of strokes that left her blind and paralyzed after using the substance. Another report of a teenage male experiencing seizures after use, while another male teen allegedly died by suicide after use, can be found in the news. The reports are not just limited to teenagers. An adult man presented for emergency medical services after an overdose characterized by severe agitation and heart rate around 200 beats per minute (more than twice the normal speed).



Macher, R., Burke, T. W., & Owen, S. S. (2012). Synthetic marijuana. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 81(5), 17-22.

Van Pelt, J. (2012). Synthetic drugs—Fake substances, real dangers. Social Work Today, 12(4), 12.


Danielle M. McNeill, M.S., M.A.
WKPIC Doctoral Intern

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