‘Synthetic marijuana’ is a dangerous misnomer that people need to stop using

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Synthetic cannabinoids do not taste like cannabis, do not provide the same high, and in a frightening number of cases, cause nasty side effects, including psychosis and death.

Lab-made cannabinoids — molecules meant to mimic natural compounds found in cannabis upon the body — are a relatively new group of drugs. They found their way out of research labs and onto the streets, starting to notably appear in the 2000s. Going by many names, including early brand “Spice,” it is also unfortunately referred to as “synthetic marijuana” by law enforcement, legislators, media, and the public.

Fact is, the name is a dangerous misnomer, as synthetic cannabinoids do not taste like cannabis, do not provide the same high, and can even be life threatening.  

The connection of synthetic cannabinoids to marijuana isn’t a completely unfounded one. These compounds came about through the work of chemist John W. Huffman. Many compound names will start with his initials, such as JWH-108, a molecule popular, in part, because it’s one of the easiest cannabinoids to synthesize. Huffman wasn’t looking to create a marijuana-like high; his research focused on endocannabinoid receptors, which in addition to being responsible for cannabis’s psychoactive effects, is also related to inflammatory pain.

Marijuana’s high is often described as anywhere from calming to uplifting, and is usually a pleasant experience, although too high a dose has caused anxiety and panic in some. On the other hand, the effects of synthetic cannabinoids include intense highs, anxiety, nausea and vomiting, rapid heartbeat, and heavy body highs sometimes causing immobility or muscle spasms. In some cases, consuming these chemicals causes psychosis and possibly death. Cannabis on the other hand, has shown promise in the opposite direction, promoting health and possibly reducing inflammation, pain, and anxiety.

Endocannabinoid System

Some consumers of synthetic cannabinoids report developing a “spice” habit, where they become dependent on increasing amounts of the substance and experience physical and mental withdrawal symptoms associated with hard drugs — a phenomena not typically tied to cannabis. Law enforcement, social workers and health care professionals have expressed having far more concern over the use, consequences, and difficulty in detecting and treating overdoses of synthetic cannabinoids than of marijuana.

The ability of synthetic cannabinoid makers to skirt drug laws, often by continuously altering the molecular structure ever so slightly, has contributed to its low cost and wide availability. Its cheap price, odor dissimilar to cannabis, and the fact that it often goes untested in mandated drug screenings makes it a popular drug of choice among the poor, homeless, and youth, as well as those subject to random drug tests. For many consumers of these substances, their circumstances make cannabis out-of-reach.

Given the differences between cannabis and products containing synthetic cannabinoids, there seems to be little reason to call these products “synthetic weed” as there’s really no association with marijuana. “Synthetic weed” is not a different form of cannabis; it’s not cannabis at all. Products like Spice, K2, and C-Cigs, are addictive, potentially lethal, and produce a high unlike cannabis. The connection is uninformed at best and disingenuously deceptive at worst.

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