Synthetic Marijuana (Spice): Composition and Effects

The synthetic marijuana or spice is a drug made from a mixture of herbs and crushed vegetal material, to which are added chemicals to mimic the effect of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This is the psychoactive ingredient of the natural marijuana plant.

This drug also appears under the name of Spice, K2 or fake marijuana (“fake weed” in English).

It is one of the so-called emerging drugs. That is to say, those natural or synthetic substances commercialized approximately from year 2002, related to the culture of the clubbers (assiduous people of clubs and pubs of electronic music).

Synthetic Marijuana

Synthetic marijuana may look like natural marijuana at first sight, but the chemicals it contains are tremendously addictive and can be deadly. Its effects on brain receptors can be up to 100 times more potent than tetrahydrocannabinol.

Synthetic Marijuana (Spice)



Synthetic marijuana in the world

There is a belief that synthetic marijuana has the same effects as natural marijuana, but in fact it causes serious psychotic and health effects. The most common effects are paranoia, hallucinations, anxiety and dissociations.

The added chemicals also cause tachycardia, vomiting, confusion, tremors and seizures.

It is a drug very consumed in the United States and Europe, where the health authorities are very concerned as its use is spreading alarmingly. This has made them consider it a serious threat to public health and safety.

In 2016 in Brooklyn, the alarm was sounded when 33 people were found who had used synthetic marijuana. These looked like zombies from “The Walking Dead.” Everyone stumbled, fell to the ground, vomited and breathed with difficulty. They had to hospitalize the majority.

Therefore, these behaviors are known as the “zombie effect”. The person is out of control, and it may be necessary to seek emergency medical attention.

Another alarming news related to synthetic marijuana is that of a teenage suicide in 2010. It seems that the boy consumed this drug together with his friends an hour before shooting himself with a shotgun.

This incident led to the proposal of a law to prohibit the use and distribution of synthetic drugs. On June 10, 2012, Barack Obama signed a law to prevent the consumption of this type of drug. It included the banning of the main compounds of synthetic marijuana.

In some places, its use is so alarming that even Washington authorities have created a website aimed at young people to be aware of the effects of this drug.

Although some of the active substances of synthetic marijuana have been banned, the problem is that the producers modify the chemical formulas to be able to circumvent the Law.

Why is this drug consumed?

Synthetic marijuana may have certain advantages over natural marijuana, causing it to become more widespread.

For example, it is easier to obtain. Synthetic marijuana can be found for sale in stores known as smart or grow shops and, to a greater extent, online. Normally its format is attractive, colorful and has pleasant smells.

In addition, its price is affordable, being much cheaper than natural marijuana. Many consume it falsely believing that its components are natural.

The majority of online stores are in the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States. This makes access easier for younger people. In fact, some studies have found that their habitual consumers are young boys of high school and homeless people.

Another reason why their consumption is increasing is that it is difficult to detect drug tests. Then, those who are subjected to anti-drug analysis can take it without being seen in the results.

Discovery of synthetic marijuana

In 1984, Professor John W. Huffman of the University of Clemson, United States, began researching cannabinoid compounds. Its mission was to increase knowledge about HIV, multiple sclerosis and cancer.

In particular, the objective of the research was to arrive at a better understanding of these diseases, as well as to help the development of new medicines for their treatment.

Over the next 20 years, Huffman and his researchers developed about 450 synthetic cannabinoid compounds. They intended to perform experiments with them to test the effect of cannabinoid receptors on the brain and other organs.

However, in 2008 it was discovered that one of the components developed by Huffman, specifically JWH-018, began to be included in products that announced they were alternatives to marijuana. These products, marketed in several countries around the world, were called “K2” or “Spice”.

In an interview with Huffman by ABC News, he proposes that real marijuana should be legalized, since its effects are known. He adds that it is difficult to convince young people not to buy synthetic marijuana because of its price and availability. Therefore, one of the benefits of this legalization would be to prevent consumers from opting for much more dangerous substitutes.

In addition to JWH-018, other components such as CP47497 have been found in synthetic marijuana. It bears the initials of Charles Pfizer, of the Pfizer pharmaceutical company, developed in the 1980s.

The substance HU-210, named after the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where it was developed in 1988, has also been discovered. It is a substance 100 to 800 times more potent than natural THC.

In addition, JWH-073, JWH-398, JWH-250 and oleamide have been found. These compounds also have much more powerful effects than natural marijuana. In this type of drug there are other substances added that are unknown, which can be highly toxic chemicals.

At the end of 2008, synthetic marijuana was investigated at the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). After that analysis, it was determined that the primary substances were JWH-018 and CP47497.

Since then, the structure of synthetic marijuana has evolved and diversified to avoid forensic detection, as well as its prohibition.

Synthetic marijuana has been increasingly difficult to detect. By having a chemical structure different from THC, the urine tests to capture it give negative results. This represents a problem for emergency physicians and authorities.

Although there are ongoing investigations to improve their detection that are currently being carried out in some forensic toxicology laboratories.

How is it consumed?

Synthetic marijuana is consumed in a similar way to cannabis, whether smoked, mixed with tobacco or natural marijuana, or by means of a pipe or tube. It is also added to foods such as chocolate cakes or infusions.

The labels of these products often contain messages such as “not fit for human consumption”. Others point out that they contain “natural” material, although the only natural part of these substances are the dry plants used, since the rest are cannabinoid compounds synthesized in laboratories.


The cannabinoid compounds found in synthetic marijuana act on the same cell receptors that receive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) from natural marijuana.

Apparently, synthetic marijuana is produced in China without controls or any type of dosage. It has been found that the same product can have different substances and different amounts of chemicals.

It is difficult to know what each dose of synthetic marijuana really contains. It has been found in its composition pesticides and even poison to kill rats.

On the other hand, the manufacturers of synthetic marijuana indicate on the labels of their products that they contain natural herbs such as the canavalia rosea, the blue Egyptian lotus or blue water lily, casida, the pedicularis densiflora, the lion’s tail , among others. But in reality these plants are sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids, far from being a natural effect.


The consumers of synthetic marijuana report experiences similar to those obtained with natural marijuana. That is, relaxation, altered perception and elevated mood.

However, other people have psychotic effects such as extreme anxiety, paranoia and hallucinations.

In some cases, its effects are much more potent than those of natural marijuana. This is explained because the active ingredient of cannabis acts on the CB1 receptor as a partial agonist. While, in synthetic marijuana, he does it as a total agonist.

Partial agonists are substances that bind to a certain receptor, but unlike totals, they only partially effect their effects.

In short, the brain can not process synthetic marijuana properly. Side effects are more likely and depend on the area where that receptor was activated.

By consuming many cannabinoids at once, the effects of synthetic marijuana are not like those of natural marijuana. While people who consume natural cannabis can be more relaxed, sociable and sensitive; those who have taken synthetic marijuana seem irritable, nervous, and violent.

Synthetic marijuana overdose

The overdose of natural marijuana can be uncomfortable but it is not usually dangerous. It can not produce death, and the effects are passed after a few hours.

However, with synthetic marijuana, it is not known exactly how many cannabinoids each dose carries. This is because they are manufactured in illegal laboratories without controls that regulate it. Therefore, overdose is characterized by adverse secondary symptoms that can endanger the health of the person, such as spasms, kidney failure and severe agitation.

Side effects and health risks

Although synthetic marijuana is often touted as a “legal and safe alternative” to marijuana, it has been shown to be very dangerous chemicals.

The most recent studies have documented acute toxicity with gastrointestinal, neurological, cardiovascular and renal effects. Also, chronic use can lead to tolerance, dependence, as well as the development of withdrawal syndrome.

A 2012 report from the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicated that in 2010 there were 11,400 cases of emergency care of people who have used synthetic marijuana.

Among the adverse effects of synthetic marijuana, the following have been observed:

– Nausea.

– Vomiting.

– Nistagmo (irregular movement of the eyes).

– Speech disorders.

– Ataxia (problems coordinating movements).

– Hypothermia.

– Hallucinations

– Confusion.

– Anxiety.

– Panic attacks.

– Irritability.

– Memory problems.

– Convulsions and spasms.

– Tachycardia.

– Hypertension or hypotension.

– Acute renal failure.

– Acute interstitial nephritis (inflammation of the renal tubules that can affect the kidneys).

– Risk of suicide due to suicidal thoughts.

– Violent behavior.

Is synthetic marijuana addictive?

This drug can be as addictive as any other. This is manifested by the withdrawal symptoms that appear when their consumption is interrupted abruptly.

Some of these symptoms are: anxiety, headache, sweating, irritability, depression, mood swings, suicidal ideas, etc.

How is synthetic marijuana addiction treated?

First of all, it is necessary to carry out a detoxification. For this, the person must be without consuming the drug for a few weeks or more.

Once the detoxification is over, a treatment should be carried out to avoid relapse and eliminate dependence as much as possible .

The duration of treatment can be from 1 to 6 months or more. Some programs require that the person remain in a detoxification or rehabilitation center, although there are also ambulatory centers.

The duration and form of treatment will depend on the severity of the addiction, the time consumed and whether it has an environment or psychological traits that facilitate consumption or not.

The psychological assistance is fundamental, since the addict usually has certain deficiencies, fears or conflicts that force him to “escape.

Also Read: Psychoactive Substances: Characteristics and Types

For the addict to feel capable of facing life, their qualities are strengthened through individual and group therapy. In addition to developing strategies to avoid re-consumption.