Clearing the air between synthetic weed and natural cannabis

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Synthethic and natural cannabis are worlds apart. That may not be clear to the uninitiated or misinformed, so consider the following primer on the differences between the two, the potential risks and circumstances that allow potentially harmful synthetic cannabis to exist.

Origin of synthetic cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids came about because scientists wanting to explore the medicinal properties of cannabis were unable to do so given the illegality of the plant. Researchers realized it would be easier to get any necessary clearances by creating new compounds that are very similar to THC. Initially, from a research standpoint, synthetic cannabinoids served a real purpose.

One of the first ever created, called CP-55,940, greatly contributed to the discovery in the early 1990s of cellular endocannabinoid receptors, a very important part of the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is essential for maintaining health and homeostasis in all vertebrates, and the endocannabinoid receptors are the pathway through which cannabinoids create their medicinal effects.

So, what makes synthetic cannabinoids so different from plant-based ones?

Difference between natural and synthetic cannabinoids

Even though they are structurally similar, the main thing that separates naturally occurring and artificial cannabinoids is their ability to influence the endocannabinoid receptors in the body. Some synthetic cannabinoids—Spice or K2, for example—are as much as 50 times more potent than their natural counterparts, something that could prove hazardous if the source of the synthetic “weed” is not known.

Unlike synthetic-cannabinoid prescription pharmaceuticals, products that end up on the street don’t go through the meticulous tests for quality and purity that are mandatory in the medical realm. The potency of street-sold “synthetic weed” products are unknown and can be dangerous, including causing death, so should be avoided.

Synthetic weed side effects

Side effects—which include heart palpitations, nausea, vomiting, seizures, confusion, lack of coordination, agitation, intense anxiety and paranoia—differ depending on both the amount and the type of synthetic cannabinoid consumed. While many of these side effects also occur when too much cannabis is consumed, since synthetic cannabinoids are much more potent, the severity of the side effects proportionally increases. Reports from users who overdosed on synthetic cannabinoids note central nervous system issues such as coma and psychosis, cardiovascular issues like tachycardia and bradycardia (increased or decreased heart rate at rest), and lung-related issues such as respiratory depression, which is associated with opioid-related overdose deaths (the opioid overdose triad includes pinpoint pupils, unconsciousness and respiratory depression).

Addiction caused by synthetic cannabinoids

There have been multiple reports of users experiencing cravings to take another dose upon consuming these substances. It has also been reported that people who had addictions to heroin and crack cocaine are turning to synthetic cannabinoids.

Names of synthetic cannabinoids

Herbal mixtures that contain synthetic cannabinoids are sold by many different names, the most common being K2 and Spice, though this synthetic cannabinoid addiction support website lists more than 700 different brand names. The concern is that as artificial cannabinoids are identified and listed as illegal, brands with new cannabinoid formulations will continue to be developed and evade regulation. Formulas and other production techniques for synthetic cannabinoids found online may also mean these compounds are being sold without any “official” packaging.

Synthetic marijuana, once known as “Spice and “K2″ is now referred to and marketed under numerous other names, Spice Gold, Spice Diamond, Yucatan Fire, Solar Flare, K2 Summit. Genie, PEP Spice, Fire n” Ice Blaze, Blueberry Haze, Dank, Demon Passion Smoke, Genie, Hawaiian Hybrid Bliss and others. Drug Enforcement Agency

How to differentiate real and synthetic cannabis

The easiest way to tell apart real from synthetic weed is by texture. Herbal blends that are sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids come in a shredded (or crumbled) form.

Smell is another way to determine if the cannabis is real. Compounds that are responsible for the way cannabis tastes and smells are called terpenes. Given the many terpenes in each weed strain, there are also many different aromas and fragrances, including fruity, skunky, earthy and pungent.

But synthetic “cannabis” doesn’t have any terpene compounds in it, and, therefore, the producers use non-cannabis herbal blends to give the synthetic “cannabis” a fragrance/aroma. Unable to replicate these fragrances, synthetic cannabis usually smells like the herbal blend serving as carrier for the artificial cannabinoids.

Then there is price; artificial weed is several times cheaper than the real thing. For instance, a gram of high-quality cannabis in the U.S. will cost at least US$10 dollars, while that amount may get a buyer several grams of synthetic weed.

What does synthetic weed contain?

Besides synthetic cannabinoids—the main active ingredient of synthetic weed—synthetic cannabis contains various herbal blends. These blends may include non-psychotropic plants such as marshmallow, blue violet, water lilies, dwarf skullcap, alfalfa, nettle leaf, rosehip and honeyweed. Other psychoactive plants are sometimes added, while psychoactive alkaloids nicotine, leonurine, nuciferine, aporphine and even synthetic opioids were detected in some blends. Additionally, masking agents are frequently added to prevent identification of synthetic cannabinoids.

Packages of synthetic weed are oftentimes labeled herbal incense, potpourri, natural herbs and air-freshener, with some even containing the disclaimer, “not for human consumption”.

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