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Spice Basics: What You Need To Know About Synthetic Marijuana

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In twenty years, when cannabis is legal at a federal level and we have a regulated system in place, hindsight will have us asking a lot of questions. Why did we allow underground organizations to control the profits and distribution of cannabis? Why did we not have a regulated system to keep cannabis out of the hands of kids? Why did we think cannabis belonged in the same class of substances as heroin?

In addition to all of these concerns, one of the most detrimental outcomes of this period will have been the development of legal substances such as synthetic marijuana. Though sold legally in head shops and gas stations, synthetic marijuana, and substances like it, are far more dangerous that the actual plant itself.

What Is Synthetic Marijuana?

It’s unfair to title synthetic marijuana (also known as “K2” or “Spice”) with the term “marijuana” at all because this product doesn’t contain THC. Rather, it contains various chemicals that mimic the effects of THC on the brain. Because of the cost and strength of the product, many users have substituted synthetic marijuana for regular cannabis as a legal alternative. Unlike natural cannabis, though, these products can cause rapid heart rate, vomiting, extreme anxiety, confusion and hallucinations.

Synthetic marijuana shares no common traits with the plant it claims to mimic. Each producer uses a variety of chemicals such as JWH-018 and (C7)-CP 47,497 in an attempt to simulate the effects of cannabis. These chemicals are mostly shipped from overseas, but the DEA has found an increasing amount of synthetic cannabis being produced in the U.S., which makes it harder to control since it doesn’t pass through border services.

The Rise Of Synthetic Marijuana

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The first reported case of synthetic cannabis in the United States dates back to 2008 when a shipment of it was seized and analyzed by U.S. Customs and Border Control. Since then, various compounds of synthetic marijuana have been made illegal, but specific brands remain permitted. The nature of this industry, though, is that manufacturers are able to adjust their brands’ chemical components to both continue to hook users as well as keep their products legal. This has lead to expansion within the industry; 51 new synthetic cannabinoids were reported in 2012, compared to only two in 2009. States are beginning to control the use of synthetic marijuana within their borders, but whether that protection is adequate is up for debate.

What It Does To It’s Users

A University of Michigan study conducted in 2012 showed that synthetic marijuana was the second most-used drug (after natural cannabis) in local high schools. This is a scary figure considering the negative health effects of these products. In 2015, VICE profiled the lives of those affected by synthetic marijuana in their documentary The Hard Lives of Britain’s Synthetic Marijuana Addicts. They spoke to those who have made the transition from traditional bud to brands like K2 and Spice for various reasons such as cost and availability. The short documentary showcases people experiencing highs similar to those of crack cocaine and withdrawal symptoms similar to those of heroin. Essentially, they recount their experiences and they’re far from good. As a new product in the marketplace, the chemicals used have not all been tested and due to the volatile nature of the industry, they’re also always changing.

What Can Be Done?

Photo Credit: Beverly Yuen Thompson

The prohibition of cannabis has led us to create synthetic, chemically-based marijuana substitutes that have much higher risks associated with them than THC, the main psychoactive chemical in cannabis. The first step to remedying this is making the safer product—natural marijuana—legal for sale. The second step towards limiting the negative effects of synthetic cannabis is educating the public regarding the differences between THC and the various chemicals found in these legal products. Finally, we need to have the proper programs and facilities to deal with addiction issues related to synthetic cannabis until the problem is eradicated.

The marketplace for alternative, legal substances to marijuana has evolved to the point where we’ve been introduced to a new and more dangerous drug than the one we insist on keeping criminal. More education needs to be provided on the differences between synthetic and natural marijuana so that the public can decide for themselves the best way to regulate the two moving forward.

Feature Image: motorolka / Shutterstock