Friday Factoids: The Dangers of Synthetic Marijuana



While many states have decriminalized the possession, use, and cultivation of natural Cannabis for either medicinal or recreational purposes, a majority of states continue to follow Federal guidelines with their approach to natural Cannabis and the law.  This seems to be driving the popularity of synthetic marijuana in those states where natural Cannabis is still treated as a controlled substance.  Synthetic marijuana goes by many names such as Spice, K-2, “fake weed”, etc., and the biggest issue seems to be that although it binds to the same CB1 receptor in the brain, it acts as a full agonist, rather than just a partial agonist as in the case of THC. (NIDA, 2015; Walton, 2014)  Binding with a much greater efficiency seems to make it much more difficult for the body to process and metabolize the acting ingredient that gives the high the user is looking for, with the result that the effect is many times more powerful than that produced by THC.


While the active ingredients in synthetic marijuana are called “cannabinoids” due to their chemical resemblance to cannabinoids that are found in natural Cannabis, they are much more potent, and unpredictable, in their effects on the user.  Even though they are marketed as a safe and legal alternative, their effects can be so much more powerful that they can become life-threatening. (NIDA, 2015)  The fact that CB1 receptors are in every structure of the brain is a key part of what makes the issue so serious, as are the symptoms experienced during an overdose event.  CB1 receptors in the hippocampus (memory affect), temporal cortex (seizure initiation), prefrontal cortex (psychosis), and brain stem (cardiac, respiratory, and gastrointestinal affect) all contribute to the myriad of symptoms that occur during an overdose on synthetic marijuana having a lasting effect, while the effects of an “overdose” from THC in natural Cannabis tend to dissipate fairly quickly.   “Clinically, they just don’t look like people who smoke marijuana,” says Lewis Nelson, MD, at NYU’s Department of Emergency Medicine, Division of Medical Toxicology. “Pot users are usually interactive, mellow, funny. Everyone once in a while we see a bad trip with natural marijuana. But it goes away quickly. With people using synthetic, they look like people who are using amphetamines: they’re angry, sweaty, agitated.” (Walton, 2014)


Newly available and unregulated psychoactive compounds, including synthetic marijuana, belong to a drug group called “new psychoactive substances”, or NPS.  NPS are problematic in that as soon as a compound is added to the group for regulation, another is quickly made available, and the cycle continues.  Fundamental changes in drug policy, drug law, public perception/attitudes, and approaches to treatment will be necessary before the depth of the problem can be ascertained, and a suitable method for treatment and recovery developed and implemented.



NIDA (2015). Synthetic Cannabinoids. Retrieved November 24, 2016, from


Walton, A. G. (2014, August 28). Why synthetic marijuana is more toxic to the brain than pot. Forbes. Retrieved November 24, 2016, from


Teresa King
Pennyroyal Doctoral Intern




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