Synthetic Сannabinoids, often referred to as “Spice” or “K2,” are a group of chemically engineered compounds designed to mimic the effects of natural cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). These compounds bind to the same receptors in the brain as THC, the primary psychoactive component of marijuana. However, they can have unpredictable and sometimes severe side effects. This article delves into the latest data on the dangers of synthetic cannabinoids and offers harm reduction recommendations.

Common Street Names for Synthetic Cannabinoids

Street Names for Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids are often sprayed onto plant material and sold in small packets under various street names to evade law enforcement and appeal to potential users. Some of the common street names for synthetic cannabinoids include:

Spice: One of the most recognized names for synthetic cannabinoids.

K2: Another widely recognized name.

The following names are also found: K9, Blaze, RedX Dawn, Yucatan Fire, Paradise, Demon, Black Magic, Spike, Mr. Nice Guy, Ninja, Zohai, Dream, Mojo, Genie, Lava, Mr. Happy, Mr. Smiley, Phantom Wicked, Scooby Snax, Green Giant, Geeked Up, Caution, Smacked, Wicked X, AK-47, Herbal Incense, etc.

It’s essential to note that the names and formulations of synthetic cannabinoids can change frequently, making it challenging for users to know exactly what they are consuming.

In order not to create difficulties, further in the text I will use the words synthetic cannabinoids or spice, referring to this whole group of substances.

Reasons for Spice’s Popularity. Misconceptions

Spice's Popularity

Legal Loopholes: Initially, synthetic cannabinoids were not illegal in many jurisdictions. They were often sold as “herbal incense” or “research chemicals” and were labeled “not for human consumption” to bypass regulations.

Accessibility: Synthetic cannabinoids were easily accessible, and often sold in head shops, gas stations, and online. Their easy availability made them particularly appealing to younger demographics and those looking for a legal high.

Variability in Effects: The high produced by synthetic cannabinoids can be intense and varied, attracting those looking for a novel or different experience compared to traditional marijuana.

Avoidance of Drug Tests: Some individuals turned to synthetic cannabinoids believing they wouldn’t be detected in standard drug tests, making them an attractive option for those subjected to regular drug screenings. At the moment, synthetic cannabinoids are better detected in tests.

The Role of Marketing and “Legal High”

The rise in the popularity of synthetic cannabinoids can be attributed significantly to strategic marketing tactics and the allure of a “legal high.” Here’s a breakdown of how these factors played a role:

Branding and Packaging: Synthetic cannabinoids have been sold under catchy and seemingly harmless names such as “Mr. Nice Guy.” The colorful and attractive packaging often does not hint at the potential dangers within.

Misleading Terminology: By labeling these products as “herbal incense” or “research chemicals” and including disclaimers like “not for human consumption,” manufacturers have been able to bypass certain regulations and give the impression of a safe, natural product. Due to their chemical similarity to natural cannabinoids, synthetic cannabinoids were sometimes misleadingly labeled as “synthetic marijuana” or “fake weed.” This branding contributed to the misconception that they were merely a different form of marijuana, leading many to believe they were a safer or legal alternative.

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Targeting the Youth: The marketing of synthetic cannabinoids has been particularly appealing to younger demographics. The use of vibrant colors, familiar logos, and easily accessible points of sale (like convenience stores and online shops) made them especially attractive to younger users.

The “Legal” Allure: One of the most significant selling points of synthetic cannabinoids has been their legal status. In many regions, these substances were not initially illegal, allowing them to be sold openly. This “legal” status made them an attractive option for those looking to experience a high without the legal repercussions associated with marijuana use.

Economic Considerations: Synthetic cannabinoids were often cheaper than natural cannabis, further adding to their appeal for some users.

However, as the adverse effects of synthetic cannabinoids became more evident, there has been a push to regulate and ban these substances in many countries. The “legal high” allure has diminished in places where strict regulations have been put in place, but the challenge remains due to the constant evolution of these compounds by manufacturers looking to bypass new laws.

Spice vs. Marijuana

Synthetic Cannabinoids vs. Marijuana

Synthetic cannabinoids and natural cannabinoids both interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system, but they have distinct differences in their origin, structure, effects, and potential risks:

Origin:

  • Natural Cannabinoids: These are compounds naturally found in the cannabis plant. The most well-known are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol).
  • Synthetic Cannabinoids: These are chemically engineered compounds created in laboratories. They are designed to mimic the effects of natural cannabinoids but are not derived from the cannabis plant.

Chemical Structure:

  • Natural Cannabinoids: Their chemical structures are consistent as they are derived from the cannabis plant.
  • Synthetic Cannabinoids: The chemical structures can vary widely. Manufacturers often alter the chemical composition to circumvent legal restrictions, leading to a vast array of different synthetic compounds.

Effects on the Body:

  • Natural Cannabinoids: They produce a range of effects, including relaxation, altered perception, and increased appetite. The effects are generally well-understood, though individual experiences can vary.
  • Synthetic Cannabinoids: While they can produce some effects similar to cannabis, such as relaxation and euphoria, they can also lead to unpredictable and sometimes severe side effects, including rapid heart rate, vomiting, psychosis, violent behavior, and suicidal thoughts.

Potency:

  • Natural Cannabinoids: The potency is relatively consistent, especially in regulated markets where the cannabis product is tested for THC and CBD content.
  • Synthetic Cannabinoids: They can be much more potent than natural cannabinoids. This increased potency can lead to a higher risk of overdose and adverse reactions.

Safety Profile:

  • Natural Cannabinoids: Generally considered safer, especially when consumed in moderation and without mixing with other substances.
  • Synthetic Cannabinoids: Due to their unpredictable nature and the potential for harmful additives, synthetic cannabinoids have been associated with numerous health risks, including organ damage, psychiatric effects, and even death.

The Dangers of Synthetic Cannabinoids

The frequency of occurrence of toxic effects in popular representatives of Synthetic Сannabinoids.
Figure from the article Toxicity of Synthetic Cannabinoids in K2/Spice: A Systematic Review

Spice has garnered significant attention due to its associated health risks. While this group of substances is designed to mimic the effects of natural cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, its impact on the body can be far more unpredictable and harmful. Here are some of the primary dangers associated with synthetic cannabinoids.

Physical Health Risks

Synthetic cannabinoids have been associated with a range of adverse physical health effects:

  • Rapid Heart Rate: One of the most common adverse effects of synthetic cannabinoids is tachycardia or a rapid heart rate. This can lead to increased blood pressure and poses a risk for individuals with pre-existing heart conditions.
  • Vomiting: Nausea and vomiting are frequently reported symptoms among users of synthetic cannabinoids.
  • Acute Kidney Injury: Some research suggests an association between the use of synthetic cannabinoids and acute kidney injury.
  • Breathing Difficulties: Users can experience respiratory issues, including shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.
  • Chest Pain: Some users have reported experiencing chest pain after consuming synthetic cannabinoids
  • Dizziness and Inability to Move: These are among the neurological effects that some users might experience after consuming synthetic cannabinoids.
  • Seizures: There have been reports of seizures in individuals who have used synthetic cannabinoids, even in those without a prior history of seizures.
  • Death: In extreme cases, the use of synthetic cannabinoids has been linked to fatalities, often due to the unpredictable nature of these compounds and the potential presence of toxic adulterants.
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Mental Health Risks

Spice Mental Health Risks

Here are some of the primary psychiatric concerns linked to Spice use:

  • Altered Mental Status: Consumption of synthetic cannabinoids can lead to changes in mental status, which can manifest as confusion, disorientation, or a reduced ability to think clearly. With a high probability, it will be a poorly controlled and unpleasant experience.
  • Anxiety and Panic: Users often report heightened feelings of anxiety and episodes of panic after consuming synthetic cannabinoids.
  • Aggression: Some users exhibit aggressive and violent behavior, which can be a danger to themselves and others.
  • Mood Disorders: Chronic use of synthetic cannabinoids has been associated with mood disorders, including depression.
  • Hallucinations: Synthetic cannabinoids are more likely to be associated with hallucinations than natural cannabis, possibly due to their increased potency.
  • Dissociation: Some users report feeling detached from reality or experiencing a sense of unreality.
  • Psychoses: There have been numerous reports of individuals experiencing psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia, after using synthetic cannabinoids. These symptoms can sometimes persist for over a month.
  • Addiction and Withdrawal: Some users have reported symptoms of addiction, including cravings, increased tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms like headaches, anxiety, depression, and irritability

It’s essential to note that the effects of synthetic cannabinoids can vary widely based on the specific compound, the dose, and the individual’s physiology and mental state. Additionally, these effects can be exacerbated when synthetic cannabinoids are used in conjunction with other substances.

Other Risks

  • Unpredictable Effects: Unlike natural cannabis, the effects of synthetic cannabinoids can be highly unpredictable. This is because the chemical composition can vary widely from one product to another, leading to a range of reactions in users.
  • Toxic Ingredients: Because synthetic cannabinoids are unregulated, they can contain a mix of chemicals, some of which may be toxic. There have been reports of synthetic cannabinoids being laced with other dangerous substances.
  • Lack of Medical Research: The long-term effects of synthetic cannabinoids on health are still not fully understood, as these substances are relatively new and have not been extensively studied.
  • Legal Implications: While synthetic cannabinoids are often marketed as a “legal” alternative to marijuana, many jurisdictions have banned specific compounds found in these products. However, manufacturers frequently alter the chemical structures to create new compounds that bypass existing bans.

Harm Reduction for Spice

Harm Reduction for Spice

Given the unpredictable nature and potential dangers of synthetic cannabinoids, harm reduction strategies are essential to minimize risks.

  1. Educate and Raise Awareness: Inform potential users about the risks associated with synthetic cannabinoids, emphasizing that they are not a “safe” alternative to natural cannabis. You can share this article, for example.
  2. Use Only a Small Amount: If the desire to use is irresistible, due to the potency and variability of synthetic cannabinoids, it’s recommended to start with the smallest dosage (and even less) to gauge the effects.
  3. Avoid Mixing with Other Substances: Combining synthetic cannabinoids with other drugs, alcohol, or stimulants can increase the risk of adverse reactions and heart, mental and system problems.
  4. Familiar Environment: Only consume synthetic cannabinoids in a known and safe environment. Being in unfamiliar or stressful settings can exacerbate negative effects and increase all risks.
  5. Be Cautious About Packaging: Packaging can be misleading, often marketing the product as herbal or natural. They are not.
  6. Seek Medical Attention if Needed: If someone experiences severe adverse effects after consuming synthetic cannabinoids, it’s crucial to seek medical attention immediately.
  7. Engage in Community Support: Joining harm reduction communities or forums can provide users with updated information, shared experiences, and support.
  8. Legal Considerations: Be aware of the legal status of synthetic cannabinoids in your jurisdiction. Possession or distribution can lead to legal consequences.
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It’s essential to approach the use of synthetic cannabinoids with caution and to prioritize safety. While these harm reduction strategies can help mitigate some risks, the best way to avoid potential dangers is to abstain from using these substances.

I often write these words. They basically concern all substances. But in the case of Spice, this advice is especially relevant. Don’t take it. This is a very harmful and unpredictable group of substances that can really break your life after a single use.

Conclusion

Spice is bad for you

Synthetic cannabinoids have emerged as a significant public health concern over the past few decades. While they were initially perceived as a legal and safe alternative to marijuana, the reality has proven to be much different.

One of the most concerning aspects of synthetic cannabinoids is their unpredictability. Unlike natural cannabis, where the primary psychoactive compound is THC, synthetic cannabinoids can be made up of a myriad of different chemicals, each with its own potential effects and risks.

Numerous reports have highlighted the severe physical and mental health risks associated with synthetic cannabinoid use, ranging from acute symptoms like nausea, seizures, and hallucinations to potential long-term damage to organs and mental health.

While they might have initially been marketed as “legal highs,” many jurisdictions worldwide have now banned or regulated synthetic cannabinoids due to their associated risks. However, manufacturers often tweak the chemical structures to produce new compounds that skirt these bans, leading to a continuous game of cat and mouse with regulators.

There’s a pressing need for public education on the dangers of synthetic cannabinoids. Misconceptions, driven in part by misleading marketing, have contributed to their popularity, especially among younger users.

Given the continued use of these substances, Harm Reduction strategies are crucial. This includes public awareness campaigns, ensuring that those who do choose to use these substances are aware of the risks, and providing resources for those who might be struggling with addiction or other adverse effects.

In the end, I want to express an unpopular, most likely, opinion. The emergence and popularity of synthetic cannabinoids can be safely considered a consequence of the war on drugs and another consequence of this useless and harmful misconception on a global scale. If the authorities were not concerned about persecuting people for using natural cannabis, they would not have missed the appearance on the stage of its dangerous and unpredictable laboratory clones. And the spike would not have gained such popularity if cannabis had been legalized.