Synthetic marijuana is a dangerous substance that can be addictive and toxic to the brain. John W. Huffman, Ph.D., is the chemist who created the most recent component of synthetic cannabis. He had this to say about people who use synthetic marijuana in an interview with ABC News:
“They’re playing Russian roulette. I mean, it’s just like taking a pistol with one bullet in it and spinning the chamber and holding it to your head and pulling the trigger.”
Synthetic marijuana is incredibly toxic to the brain. Despite its illegal status in the U.S., variations of the drug continue to be sold over-the-counter. When a given formula of the drug becomes illegal, chemists alter the recipe and continue distributing it.
Here’s what you need to know about the dangers of synthetic marijuana.
What Is Synthetic Marijuana?
Synthetic marijuana has been sold under various names, including “K2,” “Scooby Snax,” “Black Mamba,” and “Spice.” Each brand contains a unique combination of compounds. Since users never know exactly what they’re going to get, the effects can be unpredictable.
Synthetic marijuana activates the same receptors in the brain as regular marijuana. The difference is that synthetic marijuana overloads the brain. Not only is synthetic marijuana stronger, but it’s also a full opioid agonist instead of a partial opioid agonist like cannabis. In other words, the dose is too high and too intense for the brain to handle.
Jeff Lapoint, MD, an emergency room doctor and medical toxicologist, says that “synthetic cannabinoids are tailor-made to hit cannabinoid receptors – and hit it hard. This is NOT marijuana. Its action in the brain may be similar, but the physical effect is so different.”
A Brief History of Synthetic Marijuana
The various chemicals used in synthetic marijuana have been developed over the course of decades by a collection of companies and chemist.
The chemical CP 47,497 was developed by Pfizer Pharmaceuticals in the 1980s. HU-210 was first developed in 1988 at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. HU-210 is 100 to 800 times more potent than the THC in regular marijuana. JWH-018 was created in 1995 at Clemson University in South Carolina.
Products containing these chemicals started showing up on shelves in Europe in 2004 under the brand name “Spice.” They started being sold in the U.S. in 2008. The U.S. Drug Administration took emergency actions to restrict the distribution of synthetic marijuana in 2010 due to a spike in emergency room cases. In 2012, a law was passed banning all known formulations of synthetic marijuana.
Synthetic marijuana products continue to be the cause of ER visits. Chemists simply change the formula to avoid legal repercussions. The government continues to ban new substances as they continue to be found, but it’s difficult to keep up with all the new products as they come out.
Side Effects of Synthetic Marijuana
Synthetic marijuana can produce a wide range of adverse side effects. Mild side effects include relaxation, elevated mood, and an altered the perception of sounds and objects. Moderate to severe side effects include confusion, rapid heart rate, extreme anxiety, vomiting, paranoia, hallucinations, psychosis, suicidal thoughts, and violent behavior.
Several case reports have documented gastrointestinal problems, hyperthermia, acute cerebral ischemia, heart attack, rhabdomyolysis, and respiratory depression.
How Synthetic Marijuana Behaves in the Brain
Synthetic marijuana binds to CB-1 (cannabis-1) receptors in the brain. This is the same receptor than regular marijuana binds to. Synthetic marijuana, however, does so in a way that overwhelms the brain.
A chemical’s toxicity is always dependent on dose. A little water keeps you hydrated and healthy while drinking too much water can cause seizures. The same goes for activating the CB-1 receptor. According to Paul Prather, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, “[synthetic marijuana’s] potency can be up to one hundred or more times greater than THC.”
The brain is packed with CB-1 receptors, so if a drug like synthetic marijuana is present, there’s a lot of places for it to latch on to. To top it all off, the body doesn’t know how to deactivate synthetic marijuana. Once the potent drug binds to CB-1 receptors, the brain struggles to neutralize the drug’s effects.
Synthetic Marijuana Withdrawals
Abruptly stopping regular synthetic marijuana use is known to produce withdrawal symptoms. Severe withdrawals from synthetic marijuana may include recurring seizures, chest pain, heart palpitations, rapid heart rate, and shortness of breath. More common withdrawal symptoms include drug cravings, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, excessive sweating, and loss of appetite.
In severe cases of long-term use, withdrawals can occur shortly after smoking the product. One case has been reported where the patient would wake up every 45 minutes throughout the night to smoke in response to intense withdrawals.
In general, the more synthetic marijuana you use daily, the worse the withdrawal symptoms will be. There’s a growing body of reports where patients site severe withdrawals as the main reason why they continue using.
Treating Synthetic Marijuana Withdrawals
There’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to effectively treating synthetic marijuana withdrawals. Patients are usually given IV fluids to address electrolyte and mineral imbalances. Some doctors have found that treatment with benzodiazepines and the atypical psychotic quetiapine helps reduce withdrawals. Most patients can manage withdrawal symptoms with an intensive outpatient program (IOP) care. Severe cases require inpatient care and constant monitoring.
Recovering From Synthetic Marijuana Use
The more you use synthetic marijuana, the more likely you are to need extensive drug treatment. In a recent New Zealand study, patients who needed outpatient care reported having smoked an average of 4.6 grams of synthetic marijuana a day. Patients who required medically supervised detox reported having smoked an average of 5.3 grams per day. 53% of the 47 patients in the study were recommended for inpatient care, while the remaining 47% received outpatient care.
Final Thoughts on Synthetic Marijuana
Using synthetic marijuana is like playing Russian roulette with your brain. Even the chemist that created one of the chemicals used in synthetic marijuana thinks that you’d have to be crazy to smoke it. Synthetic marijuana is incredibly toxic and has severe side effects including psychosis, seizures, and heart attack.
If you or someone you know is struggling with synthetic marijuana use, Stonewall Institute Treatment Center is available to answer any questions you may have. Call us today at 602-535 6468 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.