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."
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?
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