What are Synthetic Drugs?
Synthetic drugs are manufactured from chemicals and dried plant matter in order to mimic their natural counterparts. You may already be familiar with the names of some synthetic drugs like methamphetamine (meth), PCP, and ecstasy, all of which are cooked up in a lab. The new generation of synthetic drugs seeks to mimic the high a user would get from smoking or ingesting marijuana, called “potpourri,” or “incense,” with brand names like Spice, K2, or Genie; or the amphetamine-like effects of the khat plant in synthetic cathinones, called “bath salts,” sold as Purple Wave, Ocean Burst, Vanilla Sky, and other brand names.
These synthetic drugs appeal to young people, especially, because they are often labeled as legal and safe ways to get high. Unfortunately, these drugs, which are more potent than their natural counterparts, can still cause addiction, organ damage, permanent physical and mental harm, violent episodes, other unpredictable effects, and even death. No studies have been conducted that have determined the long-term effects of using synthetic drugs on the human body, and with most of these drugs coming from China and Russia to be repackaged for retail sale in the U.S., there is a high risk of ingesting or smoking any number of unknown toxic ingredients. Emergency room visits related to the negative side effects of synthetic drugs number in the tens of thousands per year.
About Synthetic Marijuana
Synthetic marijuana is made by spraying synthetic cannabinoids—a man-made oil or crystalline chemical mixture that mimics the effects of THC in real marijuana—onto dried and shredded plant material. Distributors tout this “potpourri” as natural, and safe, though the only natural thing about synthetic marijuana is the plant material. Synthetic marijuana is also available in liquid form.
The stuff is potent, and this is because it acts on the same brain receptors as THC, or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the mind-altering ingredient found in the marijuana plant. Synthetic weed, however, is often multiple times more potent than marijuana (up to 100 times more potent, in some cases), and the synthetic cannabinoids attach to more types of receptors than just the ones THC attaches to. This increased potency and attachment to multiple types of receptors increases the types of effects the user gets. While the positive effects of relaxation, elevated mood, and heightened perception can be enhanced, the chances for serious adverse effects such as addiction, paranoia, high blood pressure, blurred vision, hallucinations, severe anxiety, and permanent physical and mental damage are also multiplied greatly.
Synthetic marijuana first hit the market in 2006 in the UK, where it was called spice. Spice quickly became popular because users got a marijuana-like high without having to worry about being caught with an illegal substance, and it has since spread globally; but reports immediately started pouring in of a wide array of adverse side effects, including psychosis, diminished mental capacity, organ damage and failure, and even death. Also very concerning is that synthetic marijuana—unlike natural marijuana—can be highly addictive.
What makes synthetic marijuana even more unnerving is that the chemical composition is different from manufacturer to manufacturer, and even from batch to batch. This makes it impossible to predict the effects a user might experience, including the severity of adverse side effects. Further, most synthetic marijuana is created in China and Russia, making it even more difficult to determine exactly what ingredients are being used. To get around drug laws, manufacturers frequently change the chemical composition of the synthetic cannabinoid they use, and packages are labeled “not for human consumption.” Those in the know, however, understand what they are buying and how to use it.
Most common methods of using synthetic marijuana:
- Smoking it: synthetic marijuana in the form of potpourri or incense is smoked in a bong or rolled into a joint. Users sometimes take it separately or mix it with real marijuana.
- Vaping it: the liquid form of synthetic marijuana is used in e-cigarettes, vape pens, and hookah pens. Vaping synthetic marijuana is a growing trend among high school and college students.
- Making it into a tea: steeping the plant materials on which synthetic cannabinoids have been sprayed brews up a mind-altering tea.
Signs of Synthetic Marijuana Use
Users will feel the high from synthetic marijuana as soon as the chemicals reach the brain within two or three minutes, and highs typically last between one and three hours, though potent Spice or K2 can create a high lasting up to eight hours. Because the chemical composition varies so much from one manufacturer’s synthetic cannabinoid to another, there isn’t a convenient list of predictable behaviors that signal that someone is definitely abusing synthetic marijuana. Instead, users will generally begin exhibiting marked changes in behaviors and symptoms that are very different from their normal behavior. These changes are physical, cognitive, and psycho-social, including:
- Sudden long-lasting bouts of hyperactivity
- Sudden long-lasting bouts of lethargy and sleepiness
- Unusually aggressive behavior, including angry outbursts and violence
- Physical illness, such as nausea, vomiting, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, chest pain, headaches, panic attacks, etc.
- Noticeable, swift, and unusual shifts in moods: elation, anxiety, and extreme depression
- Symptoms of psychosis, such as hallucinations (seeing things that aren’t real or hearing voices no one else can hear), delusions (becoming fixated on an idea or thought that is demonstrably false or flawed), or paranoia
- Excessive sweating and pale skin
- Inability to speak
- Lack of pain response
- Uncontrolled spastic body movements or paralyzation
While one or two symptoms alone is not a good indicator that the person is using synthetic marijuana, the more symptoms that are exhibited, the more likely that drug abuse is occurring. Be aware that the symptoms of synthetic marijuana abuse mimic the symptoms of schizophrenia in many ways, with psychosis occurring much more frequently as a user increases their synthetic marijuana consumption.
Dangers of Synthetic Marijuana
No studies have been performed on how the human body reacts to synthetic marijuana over the long term, but based on calls to poison control centers and records of ER visits in the last five or six years, we do know some of the damage that synthetic marijuana has been recorded to inflict on even short-term users.
The synthetic cannabinoids in synthetic marijuana do not show up on urine drug tests, which is why many young people feel confident in taking the drug even when they are subjected to regular drug tests for work, school, or as part of probationary requirements. Manuel Fernandez Palmer, MD, and his colleagues at the Methodist Dallas Medical Center speculate that heavy metals within the chemical compounds of the synthetic cannabinoids may be one of the culprits in some users’ kidney failure, though further testing will need to be done to prove or disprove this theory. In any event, doctors are now starting to ask about synthetic marijuana use when young people show up with failing kidneys and no other related medical history that could otherwise explain why it is happening.
The CDC released numbers that showed that 15 people were known to have died as a result of using synthetic marijuana in the first half of 2015 (see here). It is likely that many more people have died as a result of using synthetic marijuana, but medical professionals unfamiliar with the drug, its symptoms, and its dangers might not have correctly identified the cause of death.
Synthetic marijuana can cause severe depressive episodes in users, and that depression can lead to suicide ideation and action. In addition, the psychotic effects of the synthetic cannabinoids can lead users to commit suicide while in the throes of hallucinations, paranoid episodes, or while experiencing violent blackouts.
In June, 2016, the mother of three children killed and dismembered her children while high on synthetic marijuana before attempting suicide by stabbing herself in the neck with a large knife (see story here).
What’s in the Synthetic Marijuana Chemical Compound?
The problem with identifying the chemicals in the synthetic cannabinoid compound used to make synthetic marijuana is that no manufacturer makes it the same way. Over 700 research chemicals can be included in synthetic cannabinoid, and there is no regulation or oversight possible on which chemicals are used and in what proportions. What you can be sure of is that there is no actual cannabis contained in any of the synthetic compounds used to spray the dried plant matter that is marketed as potpourri or incense.
The majority of synthetic marijuana is manufactured in Chinese and Russian seaport cities to make it simple to ship all over the world. Distributors receive these shipments of powdered synthetic cannabinoid and then dissolve it and spray it onto dried plant material before packaging it and selling it online, in convenience stores at gas stations, in head shops (stores that sell drug-related paraphernalia), and on the streets. There is no quality control available, so buyers are constantly at risk of smoking or ingesting chemical impurities that increase the risk of adverse side effects.
To skirt U.S. drug laws, which are having a difficult time keeping up with the fluid and constantly evolving synthetic drug trade, the chemical compounds in the synthetic cannabinoids used to make synthetic marijuana are frequently changed, making even identifying what’s actually in multiple batches from the same brand almost impossible.
Risks to the Public
Sadly, synthetic marijuana use doesn’t just harm the user. In many cases, users become confused and physically violent against themselves and others. Because there is no antidote to synthetic marijuana, medical personnel must often heavily sedate violent users until the effects of the drug wear off; but as is noted above, the drug can also lead users to harm others or even commit murder while under its influence.
An additional risk to the public lies in the fact that those who heavily use synthetic marijuana over long periods of time become a burden on society. Mental and physical damage done by the drug is often not reversible, and some users are now completely dependent on others for their care.
How the Government Is Trying to Fight Back against Synthetic Marijuana
The Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 places 26 types of synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones into Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act, and three more were added in 2013. These laws, combined with previous laws regarding synthetic drugs, are being used by both federal and state administrations to try and stem the tide of manufacturers and distributors of synthetic marijuana and other synthetic drugs in the U.S.
The problem lies in the fact that manufacturers frequently change their chemical compounds to skirt these laws. It is also very difficult and costly to prosecute use of synthetic marijuana, and many local law enforcement offices simply do not have the resources to collect the necessary evidence for prosecution. Still, 43 states have passed laws similar to the federal anti-designer drug laws and are trying to stem the rising tide of abuse.
How to Get Treatment for Synthetic Drug Abuse
All the signs point to the fact that you can, indeed, get addicted to spice (synthetic marijuana). Users have testified to the fact that they need to consume higher and higher doses in order to get the same high, and it has been shown that users develop both a psychological and chemical dependency.
Treatment for synthetic drug addiction is very similar to treatment for addiction to other types of drugs. While there are currently no medications that can reduce withdrawal symptoms (like methadone for opiate addiction, for example), targeted behavioral therapies, therapies and counseling, and support groups are all part of a successful addiction recovery program. Depending on your needs, you can also choose between the 24/7 security of inpatient programs or the support you receive from intensive outpatient programs.
Because of the severe risks associated with addiction to synthetic marijuana, don’t wait to get help for you or a loved one who is addicted. Houston Behavioral Healthcare Hospital’s team of medical professionals, counselors, and support staff work to tailor a program that is designed to meet your specific needs in breaking the addiction and finding your way to recovery. Please browse our site for more information about our programs for adolescents and adults, or call us at 877.489.4707 for more information and to schedule a complimentary assessment.