As marijuana becomes legal in more states, there is not only a rise in its use but also in pot alternatives, such as synthetic cannabinoids. The contents of these drugs are not regulated, nor is the potency consistent. In 2018, more than 70 people overdosed on K2 in New Haven Connecticut in one day, which makes the fake option far deadlier than marijuana. K2 and Spice are often referred to using terms such as “natural ingredients” and “marijuana alternative” which makes them popular with teenagers.

What are Natural Cannabinoids?

Naturally occurring cannabinoids are in the human body and cannabis plants**. They are a diverse class of approximately 500 compounds that include over 100 found in plants. Cannabidiol and tetrahydrocannabinol are best known; CBD for its medicinal properties and THC for its psychoactive qualities.

K2 and Spice synthetic drug use in teens

What are Synthetic Cannabinoids?

These mind-altering, human-made chemicals are typically sold as liquids for use in devices such as e-cigarettes or sprayed onto shredded, dried plant material meant for smoking. Because they are similar to the plant-based compounds, they are referred to as fake weed or synthetic marijuana. However, they may affect the brain more powerfully than the “real” cannabinoids and often have unpredictable dangerous effects. This group of synthetic drugs, called new psychoactive substances, are often labeled as “not for human consumption” with claims that they contain natural materials taken from plants.

Chemical tests show these mind-altering substances are made in laboratories. Synthetic cannabinoids were easy to buy for years, packaged in attractive foil containers and plastic bottles, in gas stations, novelty stores, and online. This easy access and marketing campaigns regarding their role as a “safe alternative” to marijuana contributed to the popularity among young people. Authorities have made synthetic cannabinoids illegal due to the high propensity for abuse.

To bypass the laws, manufacturers change the chemical formula. As a result, hundreds of brands are available today. Standard tests cannot detect many of these chemical compounds as manufacturers can change the mix much faster than tests can be developed, which also makes them popular among dealers.

What is K2?

Synthetic marijuana, also known as K2, Spice, Black Mamba, Kush, Kronic, and Joker is nothing like traditional marijuana. The faux cannabinoids in K2 exhibit a stronger affinity for CB1 receptors than THC. This makes users think that it will just be a more intense high than marijuana. In reality, the effects are highly unpredictable. The hallucinatory effects are more potent than in organic products, and each person is affected differently.

Every bag of K2 is a medley of unknown chemicals in mysterious amounts. Although K2, along with many of the individual chemicals needed to make it, is banned in the U.S., it is still readily available. This is because manufacturers are continually tweaking the molecular makeup, creating new compounds that sidestep existing regulations.

Part of the popularity is due to cost. The spice drug is a lot cheaper than marijuana. In many cases, the potpourri of plant material comes from the dried floral arrangements found on the graves in cemeteries. In bigger cities, homeless and impoverished individuals can afford it more readily, causing spikes in emergency room activity and overdoses. The lack of a single recipe means that people may use K2 to get a new kind of high.

However, there is no way to know what it’s sprayed with, in the attempt to diversify the effects and avoid the bans. A batch in New York was found to contain rat poison, which may extend the high by tying up liver enzymes. Because the chemicals are applied to the surface of the organic material, as opposed to being part of the plant, the dose is inconsistent. Not only does the chemical amount vary from one batch to another, but it is different within the same package. Marketed as “enhanced” or “natural,” these chemical compounds can be deadly.

How do These Synthetic Drugs Affect the Brain?

Spice has only been around for a short time and research regarding how it affects the brain is in its infancy. Scientific studies have been virtually impossible as manufacturers change the chemical composition from one batch to another to stay ahead of the laws.

Most users smoke the chemically sprayed plant material, either on its own or mixed with marijuana. Some individuals brew it as tea. Regardless of how it is ingested, the synthetic compounds act on the same brain cell receptors as the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana, THC but with stronger results:

  • Intense happiness/Euphoria
  • Relaxation
  • Heightened awareness of surroundings

There is also an assortment of chemicals in products sold as Spice that have not been identified. As a result, how they affect users is unclear. However, the high with synthetic marijuana is more intense and the side effects more potent:

  • Agitation
  • Paranoia
  • Psychosis
  • Hallucinations
  • Suicidal thoughts

The psychotic effects experienced by users of “fake weed” may result in violent behavior and suicidal thoughts accompanied by extreme anxiety.

How do These Synthetic Drugs Affect the Body?

The level of toxicity and the way Spice affects the long-term health of users is still unknown. Some of the mixture variations may have harmful heavy metal residues:

  • Racing heart and shortness of breath
  • Dehydration
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Coma

Health effects such as a sudden surge in blood pressure can reduce blood supply to the kidneys and heart, causing permanent damage. Even one use can result in a heart attack and death.

Can Users Overdose on Spice/K2?

Spice and K2 are among the dozens of products often marketed as “herbal” or “natural,” even though the chemical compounds are entirely human-made. Lab-manufactured drugs have been identified coming from China and smuggled in from other countries. Whereas overdosing on marijuana from the cannabis plant rarely happens, there were more than 28,000 mentions of fake weed in emergency rooms in 2011. Unintentional overdosing often stems from the toxicity of the variable ingredients.

These designer knock-offs can be more than 100 times more potent than the organic product it mimics as the synthetic cannabinoids may bind more thoroughly to the receptors in the brain. This increases the risk of overdose or severe adverse side effects. Fake weed can be highly addictive, resulting in severe withdrawal symptoms when individuals discontinue use.

Developmental Effects in Teens

In many cases, young people who use synthetic drugs also use other recreational substances. Prolonged marijuana use can affect teens’ still-developing brain and lead to issues with learning, thinking, and memory. Since the lab-made chemical compounds are more potent than the naturally occurring compounds, it seems likely that the impact on brain function will multiply in intensity.

Contact Us Today

Addicts devote time, money, and energy to using. Relationships with friends and family suffer due to their erratic behavior. Chronic use can lead to financial and legal problems that also impact the people who love them.

The Anthony Louis Center – On-Belay House provides rehabilitation exclusively for young people 13 to 18 years of age. Teens understand risk differently than adults, so we approach the situation differently than those in adult treatment centers.

If you know or suspect your teen is struggling with addiction, contact us today to schedule an assessment. This comprehensive review covers emotional and behavioral history as well as the substance abuse aspect. We offer residential treatment, outpatient programs for those who do not need residential care, and continuing treatment after an intensive program to help your teen live his or her life drug-free.

image credits: By Eddie Phantana via Shutterstock