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Facts and Misconceptions About Synthetic Cannabinoids

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In the past few decades, a bewildering array of synthetic substances have started to become available on the market. Among these hundreds of different substances, synthetic cannabinoid products, also called synthetic cannabis or “fake weed”, are perhaps the most well-known.

These products are often used to get a high similar to regular cannabis, though often with a much stronger effect. A few of these compounds may also occupy a legal gray area, which makes them attractive to some individuals.

However, just because something is legal, it doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. There is evidence that synthetic cannabis products are likely to be much more dangerous than regular organic cannabis. There are also many potentially dangerous misconceptions about these drugs, often tied with their loose association with cannabis plants.

Here we’ll explore some of the facts and misconceptions surrounding synthetic cannabinoid products. To learn more about these drugs or how to get treated, you can get in touch with our team at Boston Drug Treatment Centers.

What Are Synthetic Cannabinoids?

Synthetic cannabinoids are a relatively new class of substances, having only been developed in the 2000s as a way to better study the effects of organic cannabis. They were developed to closely mimic natural cannabinoids, the chemical compounds that give cannabis plants their signature effects. Synthetic cannabinoids act on the same brain cell receptors as THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) and other natural cannabinoids in cannabis plants.1

Though the effects of synthetic cannabinoids are very similar to those of naturally-derived cannabinoids, they tend to be much more potent. These man-made chemicals are available in liquid form, which could be vaporized and inhaled or sprayed onto shredded plant matter and smoked.2

They come in a vast and growing number of formulations under different street names, with K2 and Spice being the more recognized. These products are sometimes also called “herb”, “fake weed”, and other similar descriptors that can hide their man-made origins.

Despite their similarities to organically-derived cannabis, synthetic cannabinoid products are generally classified as a new psychoactive substance (NPS). NPS products don’t always have any legislation or guidelines regarding their use, precisely because they’re new. For this reason, synthetic cannabis and other NPS are often used, often mistakenly, as a way to get a so-called “legal high”.

Even though some synthetic cannabinoid products are legal, most of them aren’t. In any case, they can be a potential health risk, with research suggesting that these products are far more dangerous than regular cannabis.

What Are The Effects of Synthetic Cannabinoids?

The effects of synthetic cannabinoids are broadly similar to those of natural cannabinoids from cannabis plants.3

Immediate effects include:

  • Altered perception
  • Euphoria
  • Elevated mood
  • Altered appetite

Some severe effects can include the following:

  • Rapid or irregular heartbeats
  • Aggression
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Overdose

Synthetic cannabinoids are also associated with psychosis symptoms. These include but are not limited to the following:

  • Hallucinations
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Confusion

Please note that synthetic cannabinoids and other NPS drugs are incredibly diverse. In addition to each chemical and blend being unique, these drugs are often combined with other fillers and substances, making their effects unpredictable.

Common Myths Surrounding Synthetic Cannabinoids

Perhaps because these drugs are relatively new, some misconceptions have come up surrounding them. Some of these myths include the following:

1.) They Are Identical to Organic Cannabinoids

While synthetic cannabinoids act on the same brain receptors as natural cannabinoids, not all of the hundreds of different types of synthetic cannabinoids may not necessarily even be that closely related to the natural chemicals they mimic. To use an analogy, sugar is not the same chemical as artificial sweeteners, even if they produce similar effects.

2.) Synthetic Cannabinoids are Safe

If you don’t know what’s in it, it’s not safe. It’s impossible for most consumers to tell just what ingredients are in an illicit synthetic cannabinoid product. New formulations are coming out all the time and consistency isn’t necessarily a priority for the people who make these drugs. And as with most street drugs, you can’t always be sure what additives or fillers are in these products.

3.) They Are Natural

People who synthetic cannabis products may be unaware that they’re man-made, especially if they purchase “fake weed” in the form of NPS-treated plant matter. Dealers may refer to these products as “herb” or use other brand names or descriptors to misrepresent their origins entirely, giving consumers the idea that they’re using a natural product.

Of course, as we discussed so far, there’s nothing natural about these chemical compounds. The only thing natural would be the shredded plant matter that serves as the drug’s carrier.

4.) They’re Perfectly Legal

While this may have been true when they first hit the market, today most of the synthetic cannabinoids and other NPS drugs you’ll find on the street and in clubs are likely to be illegal. The Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act, a part of the FDA Safety and Innovation Act of 2012, effectively made these substances illegal. It also gave the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) the means to regulate any substance through its emergency scheduling authority.4

Get Help for Synthetic Cannabis Today

Synthetic cannabis is dangerous and habit-forming. If you think that you or someone close to you has a problem with these substances, our team at Boston Drug Treatment Centers is ready to help.



  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2018). Synthetic Cannabinoids: An Overview for Healthcare Providers.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2018). How harmful is K2/Spice (synthetic marijuana or synthetic cannabinoids)?
  3. Hermanns-Clausen, M., Kneisel, S., Szabo, B., & Auwärter, V. (2013). Acute toxicity due to the confirmed consumption of synthetic cannabinoids: clinical and laboratory findings. Addiction (Abingdon, England)108(3), 534–544.
  4. Office of The National Drug Control Policy (n.d.). Synthetic Drugs (a.k.a. K2, Spice, Bath Salts, etc.).

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