A Look at Synthetic Cannabinoids

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5 September 2023

A Look at Synthetic Cannabinoids

"Spice" refers to a wide variety of herbal mixtures that produce experiences similar to marijuana (cannabis) and that are marketed as "safe," legal alternatives to that drug. These synthetic cannabinoids (SCs) emerged in 2004 in several countries throughout Europe. By 2008, synthetic cannabinoids had arrived in North America. Users claim the drug mimics the effects of THC (the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana). This is not entirely correct. In fact, there are a combination of adverse effects of the drug that do mimic the effects of THC, but researchers are finding that the drug is far more potent and longer lasting than marijuana.

Synthetic cannibinoids produce adverse effects that include agitation, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, tachycardia, elevated blood pressure, tremors, seizures, hallucinations, paranoid behavior and non-responsiveness. With regular use, these drugs are addictive and withdrawal symptoms are common. There have been several deaths associated with this drug as well (mostly due to overdose).

How are synthetic cannabinoids made?

SCs are typically purchased online or, particularly for SCs controlled under the Controlled Substances Act (or Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) in Canada), via the black market. They are then dissolved in a solvent and sprayed on dried plant material, such as marshmallow, mullein or damiana leaves, so that the end product appears more “herbal” or “natural.” The sprayed plant material is then placed in small packets and branded with names such as “Spice,” “K2” or “IZMS,” and sold as “herbal incense” or “herbal smoking blends.” SC products are frequently labeled “not for human consumption,” which might be an attempt to circumvent drug laws in the jurisdictions in which they are sold.

How many combinations of synthetic cannabis are there?

It is hard to determine how many different kinds of synthetic THC there are. The Office of National Drug Policy in the U.S. has noted a rise in the number of synthetic cannabinoids year over year, while the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse estimates at least 84 different strains of synthetic THC. The reason that there are so many different combinations is because as soon as a certain strain is banned, the producers alter it slightly and sells it as a different product until it is banned as well.

How do you get it?

Synthetic THC is very easy to obtain, it can be bought at online stores or most hemp shops in any city. It is sold under many names, including K2, fake weed, Yucatan Fire, Skunk, Moon Rocks, Kronic, Northern Lights, Mojo, Lightning Gold, Lightning Red and Godfather. Synthetic cannabis is also marketed as aphrodisiac tea, herbal incense and potpourri. It is often labeled "not for human consumption" in an attempt to circumvent laws against selling the drug.

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Why is synthetic THC dangerous?

Yes, synthetic THC can be very dangerous. Here's why:

  • It is much more efficient at binding and acting in the brain. Like THC, synthetic THC bonds to the CB1 receptors in the brain. The difference is that synthetic THC produces a full agonist bond where THC only produces a partial bond. In other words, synthetic versions of THC are significantly more potent.
  • CB1 receptors are all over the body. This can lead to a lot of different side effects. The side effects are more pronounced and different from THC because of how strongly synthetic THC binds with the CB1 receptors.
  • Quality control is non existent. Synthetic Cannabis is made in underground labs (usually in China) and there is no consistency. A batch of Kronic today will likely not be the same as in another package. The chemicals are hand-mixed and applied to the plant material using a hand sprayer so there is no consistency in terms of the amount of chemical that gets on the plant material. The plant material often varies in batches depending on what is available at the time of production. Kronic (or whatever label you are buying) is made up of a few of the different synthetic THC compounds, but the exact amounts may vary from batch to batch as well.
  • The drugs are always evolving. The synthetic compounds are continually changing (the 84 strains). The chemists that make this do it this way to stay ahead of the law. Once a strain is put onto the banned substance list, it is chemically altered and given a new name and is at that point not illegal until the authorities find it, analyze it and add it to the banned substance schedules.

ODs and ER Visits

According to the Substances and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in the United States, the most up-to-date statistics about synthetic cannabinoids show:

  • 11,406 ER visits in 2010 due to synthetic THC.
  • 28,531 ER vistis in 2011 due to synthetic THC.
  • Of the 28,531 ER visits, 15,796 were below the age of 20.
  • 79% were male.

Can you test for synthetic THC?

Yes, synthetic THC can be tested in urine both, either in a lab or at point of care. It is not detectable with a traditional THC test, as synthetic THC does not break down into the normal metabolites that marijuana does.

The biggest problem with synthetic cannabinoids is that there are 85+ different kinds and an infinite possibility of combinations. A drug test must test for specific drug metabolites, and no drug test can test for all metabolites that are used. The tests I have looked at vary from only two metabolites to 19. To further this problem, chemists are continually coming up with new chemical strains for synthetic THC that are not detectable by the existing tests. Finally, there is no recognized cutoff concentration for the strains for drug testing, so each manufacturer is determining what they should test for (and they are all very different).