The term “synthetic marijuana”, though common, is misleading.
Marijuana refers to the dried out buds of the actual cannabis plants, sativa and indica, which gets most of its psychoactive properties from tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). There is no one substance known as synthetic marijuana; it refers to a whole class of substances known as cannabinoid receptor agonists which affect on cannabinoid brain receptors.
Understanding Synthetic Marijuana
When you pour a packet of synthetic marijuana, such as K2 or Spice, into your palm, you’ll see that it looks like real marijuana: dehydrated and dried out stems and leaves. There’s no way of telling from which plants they come. Some may be from such psychoactive plants as Wild Dagga, but the source of their cannabinoid-like effects are the chemicals sprayed on them.
These plants, often contaminated with salmonella, pesticides, molds, and heavy and dangerous metals, are harvested overseas and shipped in bulk to other countries including the United States. Upon arriving in the US, they are thawed and mixed with the dried leaves or vegetation to absorbs all the moisture. Since this process is not precise, the doses and their effects per pack or per batch can vary greatly.
There are plenty of synthetic cannabinoids that exist and all of these can rouse cannabinoid type receptors just like THC, the ones that produce euphoria or highs. Because synthetic marijuana is not natural, there’s no way of knowing which specific synthetic cannabinoids are present in the batch you purchased. It also may rouse the non-cannabinoid receptors, producing unexpected and unpredictable effects.
The major risk in using synthetic cannabinoids is the fact that it can be mixed with other substances, like opioids, metals, sawdust, or worse, rat poison. You never know for sure what’s in it. This also means that the adverse effects on the body can range from mental to physical.
There are some signs and red flags that a friend or a loved one is using synthetic cannabinoids if you pay close attention. If you spot them, tell that individual that treatment is necessary to avoid further harm and damage. Among the signs are:
Changes in Behavior:
- Decreased ability to function properly at work
- Engaging in dangerous activities
- Poor performance in school or at work
- Rigid and catatonic actions and behavior
- Slurred and slowed speech
- Sudden energy surge
- Sudden lack of energy
- Violent outbursts
Physical manifestations of symptoms:
- Changes in blood pressure
- Elevated body temperature
- Fast heartbeat
- Irregular sweating
- Numbness in the upper and lower torso
- Recurring chest pains
- Sudden muscle contractions and spasms
- Sudden panic attacks
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How Do Synthetic Cannabinoids Affect the Users Brain?
Natural marijuana and synthetic marijuana have one similarity: They both work on the same receptors as tetrahydrocannabinol, which is the most plentiful, potent mind-altering component in marijuana.
Their effects on those receptors are not the same. A 2017 study found that synthetic marijuana was more toxic, with worse consequences for executive functions including long-term memory, reaction time, and thinking flexibly. Since the chemical make-up is unknown from pack to pack and batch, more dangerous side effects are likely.
Here are a few of the effects experienced by synthetic cannabinoid users that are known to be similar to the effects of marijuana:
- Altered perceptions of reality
- Enhanced alertness to sounds and objects
- Feeling relaxed
- Improved mood
- Psychotic, muddled or delusional thinking
These are the reported psychotic effects of synthetic marijuana:
- Extreme apprehension
- Paranoia or irrational suspicions
Other Health Effects of Synthetic Cannabinoids
Because synthetic marijuana is a fairly new drug, even the DEA is not 100% sure of its long-term risks and other negative health effects.
Additional effects of chronic spice abuse include:
- Suicidal thoughts and disturbing behaviors
- Heart attack
- Mental and emotional incapacity
- Irreparable cerebral damage
- Risk of self-harm
In most cases, people who are struggling with substance abuse are known to be also struggling with a mental condition.
These are a few of the mental health disorders that can co-occur with substance abuse:
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Behavior disorder
- Depressive disorders
- Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
- Panic anxiety disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Schizophrenic personality
Are Synthetic Cannabinoids Addictive?
Though marijuana, in itself, is not on the list of most addictive substances, frequent use and use for a prolonged period can be habit-forming. To stop using may cause withdrawal symptoms, though far milder than from opioids or heavy alcohol use.
Synthetic marijuana likewise can be addictive and provoke withdrawal symptoms and cravings when attempting to stop taking the drug.
K2 withdrawal symptoms include:
- Pounding headaches
- Sadness and depression
Synthetic marijuana also can raise one’s blood pressure, reduce the blood supply to the heart, cause seizures and damaged kidneys.
Because synthetic marijuana is so potentially dangerous, if you suspect you or a loved one is addicted, rehabilitation is the best solution. To get the best treatment, choose a rehab center that assesses and evaluates each client properly. The ideal treatment plan should be flexible to the changing needs of the patient.
Synthetic Marijuana Statistics
- Synthetic marijuana is 30 times more likely to harm you than natural marijuana.
- According to a 2013 National Institute on Drug Abuse web page, synthetic marijuana was the second most popular illegal drug among American teenagers after natural marijuana.
- In 2012, 11% of high school seniors admitted to using K2 or Spice in the past year: 14% of males, 8% of females.
- In 2010, more than 11,000 emergency room visits were connected to synthetic marijuana use, three-quarters of whom were between the ages of 12 and 29. Males outnumbered females by more than three-to-one.
- In one two-day period in 2018, 70 people near Yale University suffered dangerous overdoses due to a tainted batch of K2.
- In the first six months of 2018, almost 1,000 cases of synthetic marijuana poisoning had been recorded.
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Although synthetic cannabinoid use peaked around 2012, and it is far less of an epidemic than opioids or methamphetamine, it is still a problem.
Despite lax enforcement and attempts by the manufacturers to tweak the ingredients, synthetic marijuana is illegal on the federal level in the US and has been since 2012. At least, some of the chemicals in them are. In 2015 alone, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) added at least 15 types of synthetic marijuana to Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, making them as illegal as heroin.
The problem is, there are many more than that. To get around that problem, in some areas, including parts of Australia, there is a blanket ban on drugs like synthetic marijuana, whatever their ingredients and chemical composition. The effects, not the ingredients, make them illegal.
According to Illinois Public Health Director Nirav D. Shah, “Despite the perception that synthetic cannabinoids are safe and a legal alternative to marijuana, many are illegal and can cause severe illness. The recent cases of severe bleeding are evidence of the harm synthetic cannabinoids can cause.”
Treatment for Synthetic Marijuana Addiction
Just as with other types of addiction, the first step to healing is to acknowledge that you need help. Contact Mountain Springs Recovery treatment center to speak with one of our Addiction Specialists. Aside from being professionally trained to help you with treatment, they are empathetic and supportive of your journey towards sobriety.
Our Addiction Specialists are highly-trained professionals who can come up with the most suitable treatment plan for your case. They will explain to you the whole process of addiction treatment and recovery so you will know what to expect every step of the way. You may also ask them what types of treatment programs the center offers so that you can choose the one which you are most comfortable with.
You may also consult with them about whether or how much your insurance will cover and other options to pay for your rehab.
Mountain Springs Recovery strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.
Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.
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