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Synthetic Cannabinoids: What You Need to Know

By Chris Bond
Published: April 13, 2022
Key Takeaways

Synthetic cannabinoids may be accessible and sometimes cheaper, especially for curious youth, but make no mistake, most are dangerous to your health and should be avoided. Chris Bond explains how they’re made, what could happen, and why you should steer clear.

Synthetic cannabinoids (SC) are often perceived as a legal, safe, and sometimes less expensive alternative to other forms of cannabis. They are gaining popularity due to their widespread availability, their psychoactive effects, and for some users because they do not show up in most drug screens. The unfortunate reality though, is that SCs can be much more potent than regular old Mary Jane, and quite often much more toxic. Synthetic cannabinoids are not new. They were developed as far back as 1965 for experimentation purposes. They exploded on the scene starting in Europe at the beginning of the 21st century. There are now more than 130 different SCs that have been identified and analyzed, with new ones cropping up quite frequently.

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How Synthetic Cannabinoids are Made

Synthetic cannabinoids can be manufactured into liquid or powder formulations before ending up in their various final forms. Synthetic cannabis is often sold as dried plant material which has been sprayed with various synthetic cannabinoids (and other materials). Various plants and herbs are used such as tobacco, catmint, and salvia, though almost any dried herb could be used. It is then smoked as an alternative to cannabis. It can, however, also be found as liquid concoctions which are also smoked or vaped or even brewed into a tea. Other formulations include potpourri, fragrances as well as incenses. They are also being found “disguised” as cannabis resin, with the emphasis on the manufacturer or marketer misrepresenting the true ingredients. They are also known to be found in other illicit substances like ecstasy (“Molly” or “Mandy”).

Synthetic cannabinoids have been associated with episodes of amplified psychiatric episodes as compared to those which can be caused by THC.”

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There are scores of branded synthetic cannabinoids on the market with more showing up seemingly all the time. Some of them include AK-47, Barely Legal, Black Diamond, Black Mamba, Blaze, Blonde, Citron, Crazy Monkey, Crazy Clown, Dead Man Walking, Fake Weed, Fire, Freeze, Funky Monkey, Genie, Green Buddha, Green Giant, K2, Kronic, Mr. Nice Guy, Red Dawn X, Sence, Sexy Monkey, SinX, Smacked, Special K, Spice, Standard, Summit, TenX, Twilight, Wicked-X, Yucatan, Zohai, and 3X.

It is important to note that because of their legal status (see below), there can be almost anything added to synthetic cannabis and, short of a full lab profile, the end-user may never know what is in it. Many a synthetic cannabis user has ended up in the ICU with serious internal bleeding because what they thought was a safe alternative to marijuana was laced with brodifacoum, which is a rat and rodent killer. As one might imagine, the quality of SC runs the spectrum. If a user should end up with a “hot” batch, meaning one that has a high amount of concentrated material that was not properly prepared, they are likely in for some serious side effects (as touched on below).

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How Synthetic Cannabinoids Affect the Body

Synthetic cannabinoids can provide a marijuana-like euphoria. They can also negatively affect the user physically, neurologically, and mentally. This is not to say they always have this outcome, but severe adverse effects and the need for emergency treatment are far more likely to occur when using SCs than when using natural marijuana. Research into the frequency of such ER visits shows users of synthetic cannabis are 30 times more likely to wind up in an emergency room than those using straight-up cannabis.

Physical Effects of Synthetic Cannabinoids

Many of the same physical effects of marijuana use are found with users of SCs. Some of these shared attributes include appetite stimulation (but less so than with marijuana), drowsiness, red eyes, blurry vision, and light sensitivity. There are numerous more serious side effects including those that negatively impact the:

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  • Renal System (kidneys) — SCs have caused some patients acute renal failure and acute tubular necrosis.
  • Pulmonary System (lungs) — SC users can experience serious respiratory problems. These include hyperventilation, apnea, alveolar infiltrates (filling of air spaces with blood or other fluids), and even pneumonia.
  • Cardiovascular System (heart) — Some SC users can expect to have high blood pressure, heart palpitations, tachycardia (fast heartbeat), and chest pain. Cardiac strokes have also been reported with SC use as well as myocardial infarctions, or heart attacks.
  • Gastrointestinal System (digestion) — Though not the most serious of physical side effects from SC use, gastrointestinal discomfort is hardly pleasant. These can range from nausea, gagging, and vomiting to xerostomia (dry mouth).

These examples are not all that can negatively affect your health. Users of SCs have also experienced untold physical effects such maladies like skin problems, hair loss, tinnitus (ringing of the ears), numbness, and slurred speech.

synthetic cannabinoids

Neurological Effects of Synthetic Cannabinoids

The potential negative, neurological side effects from using SCs can range from a minor inconvenience such as a headache or dizziness, to life-threatening comas. Quite often, motor neurological functions are compromised. These can cause tremors, ataxia (impaired motor functions), muscle twitches, muscle over-activity or over-reach. Other times the effects are much more serious.

Synthetic cannabis has caused many to go into extended states of unconsciousness and even seizure. They also can cause ischemic strokes, that do permanent damage to the brain. In extreme cases, patients who are abusing synthetic cannabinoids end up in a coma.

Psychological/Psychiatric Effects of Synthetic Cannabinoids

A wide range of commonly occurring behaviors and side effects can be caused by SCs. Synthetic cannabinoids have been associated with episodes of amplified psychiatric episodes as compared to those which can be caused by THC. Agitation is the most common of the psychological effects of SC usage, but there are dozens of potentially unpleasant and even fatal side effects. They often present more aggressively in persons already suffering from mental illness.

Many episodes are mild to moderate. These run the spectrum from euphoria to paranoia, confusion to nervous laughter. Still others experience total alterations of perception. For some though, SC side effects are much worse.

Suicidal ideation and even suicide itself can be brought on by synthetic cannabinoids. Other harmful behaviors attributed to SCs include aggression, depersonalization, dissociative disorders, psychosis, and self-mutilation in a few documented cases.


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It is still largely the wild west out there when it comes to the regulation and legality of synthetic cannabis. Some that have been identified have been classified into Schedule 1 of the U.S. Controlled Substance Act, as they are “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Many manufacturers of synthetic weed, however, skirt the law by labeling their products as “not for human consumption.” Still others avoid regulation by producing new concoctions that have not yet been classified and are therefore technically not illegal. The major public health concern is that many people, especially youths, purchase synthetic cannabinoids on the internet and in other alternative retail shops because they can be obtained legally. There does not have to be a black market in synthetic cannabinoids because there is a thriving open market for them.

It should be noted any discussion of SCs should have an asterisk. Dronabinol is a SC compound that is the generic name for the oft-prescribed drugs, Marinol and Syndros. These contain man-made THC and have undergone many years of clinical trials, have been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration, and are prescribed by licensed, medical professionals for a variety of ailments and maladies. While it is possible for individuals to become clinically dependent on Dronabinol, the risk for abuse is extremely low.

In summation, there is little doubt SCs pose serious health risks. Their lack of regulation and the general misconception that they are somehow a safe alternative to marijuana leads many folks, especially impressionable and experiment-prone youths, to emergency rooms the world over, often resulting in protracted and chronic ailments. For whatever side effects there are to real cannabis, they are far fewer and usually less severe than any created by synthetic weed.

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Written by Chris Bond | Certified Permaculture Designer, Nursery Technician, Nursery Professional

Profile Picture of Chris Bond

Chris Bond’s research interests are with sustainable agriculture, biological pest control, and alternative growing methods. He is a certified permaculture designer and certified nursery technician in Ohio and a certified nursery professional in New York, where he got his start in growing.

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