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Study reveals the dangerous effects of synthetic marijuana

02-17-17 Category: Addiction, Research, Substance Abuse

Study reveals the dangerous effects of synthetic marijuana

Synthetic compounds, also called “new psychoactive substances,” are drugs created in laboratories to mimic the psychoactive effects of illegal drugs like marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Sold in headshops and by internet retailers, synthetic marijuana and other types of synthetic drugs with names like Spice and K2.

When not masquerading as incense and potpourri products, synthetic drugs are sold, marketed and advertised as “safe” and “legal” alternatives to illegal drugs. However, recent research suggests that they may actually be just as harmful, if not more potent and dangerous, and just as addictive as the drug they are designed to mimic.

Synthetic marijuana can be quite dangerous

Synthetic cannabinoids are increasingly abused for their marijuana-like effects in addition to the ability to remain undetected during a drug test. Synthetic cannabinoids, such as K2 or Spice, target the same receptors in the brain as delta-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main ingredient in marijuana.

A recent review, conducted by Paul L. Prather, Ph.D., from the department of pharmacology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and his colleagues, supported the fact that synthetic cannabinoids can actually be quite dangerous. In the 2017 review, the researchers found that more than 20 deaths due to K2/Spice were reported between 2011 and 2014, while none for using marijuana.

Some of the side effects of K2/Spice, according to the researchers, were:

  • Nausea/vomiting/hyperemesis syndrome (recurrent bouts of severe abdominal pain and vomiting)
  • Psychosis and psychotic symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations
  • Hypothermia
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Memory problems and confusion
  • Self-mutilation
  • Seizures
  • Heart-related problems like hypertension, acute cerebral ischemia, chest pain and cardiotoxicity
  • Acute kidney failure and other kidney problems
  • Tolerance, marked withdrawal and dependence due to chronic use

Synthetic cannabinoid compounds can cause adverse side effects because of their chemical structure that is different from that of marijuana and they are far from safe, the researchers said.

Other synthetic drugs are just as dangerous

Along with synthetic cannabinoids, another concern has been the growing use of synthetic cathinones, commonly referred to as “bath salts,” which were designed to mimic the effects of stimulant drugs like amphetamines, cocaine and MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymetamphetamine) and synthetic opioids, which mimic heroin and prescription painkillers.

Synthetic cathinones can lead to addiction and strong withdrawal symptoms and have contributed to an alarming number of emergency department visits.

U-4: New designer drug responsible for overdoses and deaths

Physicians may prescribe synthetic and semi-synthetic opioids for chronic pain as they were created to help treat patients of chronic pain. But these new synthetic opiates, including W-18 and U-4770 (or U-4), can be dangerous as they are several times stronger than morphine and are known to cause a number of overdoses and deaths.

The problems stemming from synthetic opiates like U-4 were previously examined in an editorial series, “Uncovering U-4.” To read the series, see:

Synthetic drugs that mimic cocaine, marijuana, opioids and other addictive drugs can be addictive and contribute to cravings and withdrawal. People do not realize but the synthetic version can be more harmful than the drugs they mimic.

Treatment for addiction to synthetic drugs

If you or someone you love is abusing a synthetic drug, it is important to know the risks involved and seek the treatment in case of an addiction. As there are no medications available to treat addiction to synthetic drugs, behavioral treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be necessary and effective in overcoming the scourge.

Sovereign Health is a leading behavioral health treatment provider that specializes in treating substance use disorders, stemming from the misuse of synthetic drugs, mental disorders and co-occurring disorders. For more information about the treatment of substance use disorders due to synthetic drugs, contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Amanda Habermann is a writer for Sovereign Health. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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