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Is it scaremongering or are the risks real? should you pass on synthetics like Spice, K2 and others...is a friend with (synthetic) weed really a friend indeed?

If you use synthetic marijuana, you should know the potential risks. Though synthetic products are marketed as marijuana-like and though they may cause a marijuana-like high, they are potentially far more dangerous. Read on for a list of differences between natural marijuana and its synthetic cousin (including comparisons of the high) and then decide for yourself if the benefits are worth the risks.

5 Dangerous Differences ...

Synthetics Have No Ceiling Effect

With synthetics, there’s no limit to how high you can go (not always in a good way)…

Both natural and synthetic marijuana stimulate the brain’s (and body’s) cannibanoid receptors. 

  • In natural marijuana, the primary psychoactive substance is THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol). 
  • Synthetic marijuana can contain one or more of a wide array of molecules that stimulate the brain’s cannibanoid receptors.

THC is a partial cannibanoid agonist, therefore there is an upper limit to its effects – a protective ceiling.

Synthetic marijuana contains full-agonist cannibanoids. There is no upper limit to the effects of these compounds and since potency variations can be extreme, this makes it much easier to take more than you meant to and easier to experience a negative or harmful reaction.

(As a comparison, methadone is a full opioid agonist and buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist, and this is why methadone is more dangerous than Suboxone - it is far easier to overdose on a full-agonist drug.)

Differences in Metabolism

Metabolism differences increase the potency of synthetic marijuana, and this can also increase its toxicity.

  1. When you smoke natural marijuana, the THC you ingest stimulates your cannibanoid receptors, you get high - and then you metabolize the THC into non-psychoactive substances.
  2. When you smoke synthetic marijuana, you ingest synthetic cannibanoids, you get high, you metabolize these cannibanoids and then you produce additional metabolites that also stimulate your cannibanoid receptors to produce further effects.

Though this may sounds like a good thing, this likely increases the toxicity and the risks of a serious adverse effect.1

Potency Differences

Huge potency swings between brands and even in-brand packages make it hard to predict what you’re going to get.

Though different strains of marijuana can have differing potencies, for a number of reasons, potency differences are much larger in synthetic marijuana preparations.

Biological forces limit maximal THC content in natural marijuana. However, since synthetic marijuana producers generally spray psychoactive compounds onto plant material, manufacturing processes and human error can lead to dramatically different strength preparations:

  • If the spray is a little thicker than usual potency can increase substantially. If one area of plant material is sprayed more thoroughly, potency can increase substantially. If chemical sprays are prepared incorrectly, potency can increase dramatically. If a new chemical formulation is applied, potency can increase dramatically…

So when buying a synthetic, even if you have used a product before and liked it, you really have no way to predict what you’re going to get or what type of experience you’re going to have.

The Guinea Pig Factor

Do you really want to take part in human experimentation on a newly synthesized drug?

Scientists have only recently composed and synthesized many of the psychoactive chemical compounds you find sprayed onto synthetic marijuana products. Since these drugs are so new, no one can predict what the medium and long term consequences of use may be.

In contrast, when smoking marijuana, though you might have to worry about pesticides and possible contaminants, you are generally ingesting a substance that has been used by humankind for a long time and has a demonstrated safety profile.

Though marijuana and synthetic marijuana both look ‘natural’ and safe, one is a natural product, and the other is a harmless-looking delivery system for laboratory-concocted drugs.

Acute Toxicity Risks

Synthetics can do you huge harm, right away.

Though marijuana can worsen mental illness and may increase a person’s schizophrenia risks, there are few short term physiological risks associated with use.

  • This is not always the case with drugs like Spice and other synthetic marijuana products. Short term synthetic marijuana ingestion is associated with possible toxic side effects like seizures, ischemic stroke and kidney damage.2 3

Since the cocktail of psychoactive substances in synthetic marijuana is ever changing and since potency differences between batches can be significant, past experience with any given product does not predict your future response – every time you try a new package, you take a chance with your physical health.

It Isn’t as Pleasant (And It Might Harm You)

So is it worth it?

OK, well people will often take health risks and ingest dangerous drugs so long as the perceived rewards equal or outweigh the probable risks – but is this the case with synthetic marijuana; is it really worth the risks?

Researchers say no, it probably isn’t.

Study: How Does Synthetic Marijuana Differ from Natural Marijuana?

In one large study using survey data from 14000 subjects (2011), of the 980 who reported last-12-month use of synthetic marijuana:4

  • Virtually all (99%) had also used natural marijuana.
  • 93% reported preferring natural marijuana to synthetic cannabis.
  • Users rated synthetic cannabis as having more negative effects, such as paranoia and next-day hangovers.

In another study, researchers found that synthetic cannabis users were more likely to report serious adverse incidents than users of natural marijuana; out of 950 past-year synthetics users, 2.4% reported seeking emergency medical attention after using synthetic cannabis.5

So not only is it more likely to do you harm, it’s not as fun either.

Though some people may choose to continue with synthetics to avoid drug testing sanctions and/or for reasons of availability, if you choose to use, make sure you understand the risks involved. 

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Page last updated Nov 24, 2015

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