Synthetic cannabinoids refer to those chemicals that are made by humans and alter the mind. They can be consumed in various forms. They are available as liquids that are vaporized to be inhaled. These chemicals can also be sprayed on dry plant material for smoking. You might also hear them being referred to as liquid or herbal incense.

The reason that cannabinoids is the name given to these chemicals lies in the similarity that they bear to the substances present in the marijuana plant. Owing to this, synthetic cannabinoids are also termed synthetic marijuana or fake weed, which is quite misleading. These chemicals are marketed as legal and safe alternatives to the drug. However, the reality is different. The truth is that synthetic cannabinoids are not really safe and can have a significant impact on the brain, indeed much more than marijuana. It is difficult to predict its actual effects. They can even be life-threatening in some cases.

Synthetic cannabinoids are categorized in the group of new psychoactive substances or NPS. NPS refers to those unregulated substances that have just recently become available in the market. The purpose of these substances is producing the same effects that illegal drugs do. It is entirely plausible that many of these substances were around since a lot of years but have been reintroduced after being altered chemically or owing to the newly found popularity.

The History of Synthetic Cannabinoid

The scientists who first studied cannabis and worked towards creating synthetic cannabinoids in the 1940s did not have a clue about the existence of cannabinoid receptors. They did not have any idea regarding the interaction of the phytochemicals of marijuana with molecules in the body. Roger Adams, affiliated with Noyes Chemical Laboratory at the University of Illinois at the Urbana Champaign and Alexander Todd from the University of Manchester, focused on creating analogs of cannabis. They used terpenoids, which are organic compounds for the purpose. They wanted to determine the effects of the elements of the drug on the body. They were the ones who produced synthetic molecules for the first time, which mimicked cannabis. They showed that the compounds created by them had the potential of causing significantly greater physiological effects compared to marijuana.

The next significant advancement was in the 1960s and 1970s when Raphael Mechoulam, who was a chemist at Hebrew University in Israel, managed to isolate THC, which is the active ingredient in marijuana. It was following this that synthetic compounds started being produced using the structure of THC.

Roughly around the same time, drug companies started having their scientists use the data by these researchers to conduct experiments and make pain medicine, which would not contain opioid. An example is Nabilone, a drug approved by the FDA. It was developed by Eli Lilly. The drug reduces the brain signals responsible for causing nausea and vomiting and is typically used in cancer patients who experience the symptoms as a result of cancer treatments. Another company which was focused on making marijuana-based painkillers was Pfizer who referred to their drugs as non-classical cannabinoids. Thus, the pharmaceutical industry produced a lot of these drugs. All of them had unique effects depending on slight changes in their structure.

In 1986, the National Institute of Drug Abuse had a meeting wherein a number of cannabinoid researchers were present. The focus of the meeting was discussion regarding THC and its analogs. Later, some scientists who were present at the meeting managed to identify the structure of the nerve receptor that responded to THC, called CB1. CB1 is the first documented cannabinoid receptor. It was a few years later that CB2, an additional cannabinoid receptor was discovered. It is vital to note that CB2 is not common in the brain of the mammals in the absence of brain inflammation or neurodegeneration.

Now that the scientists also had information about cannabinoid receptors, they were eager to create several synthetic cannabinoids and finding out more about their mechanism of action.  

Classes and Chemical Structures of Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids can be categorized into three main groups, including Aminoalkylindoles, cyclohexylphenols, and classical cannabinoids.

THC analogue, HU-210 is one of the well-known classical cannabinoids. Since it was synthesized in Hebrew University by Raphael Mechoulam in 1980s, it takes its name from there. As per the Controlled Substances Act, HU-210 falls into schedule I controlled substance. As per US Customs and Border protection, it was in January 2009 that the substance was found in herbal incense products in Washington where over 100lbs of the products were seized. Synthesis of classical cannabinoids is challenging, and as a result, this group is not commonly found in the market.

Cyclohexylphenols were developed by Pfizer in the late 1970s as analgesics. The substance is named CP-47, 497 after Charles Pfizer. These substances, along with the cannabicyclohexanol, a C8 homologue were the first synthetic cannabinoids that were detected in herbal incense. DEA made use of its emergency scheduling authority for controlling these compounds. These were soon replaced with Aminoalkylindole, a new variety of the cannabinoids.

Aminoalkylindoles are the most common synthetic cannabinoids available currently. JWH-018, JWH-073, and JWH-200 are part of this category. The JWH series was first developed at Clemson University by Professor J.W.Huffmann in the 1990s. These analogues are produced via a simple process. Students, a part of undergraduate summer research, synthesized a lot of these analogues. The final product is made after a purification process. Labs have recently detected phenylacetylindoles. Examples include RCS-8, which is an abbreviation for Research Chemicals suppliers and AM-694, which is benzoylindoles. It has gotten its name from Alexandros Makriyannis.

Why is Synthetic Cannabinoid so Risky ?

Synthetic cannabinoids have an appearance similar to marijuana. When you pour some of the substance like Spice or K2 in your hands, you will be surprised at the resemblance. The dried vegetation of these substances can either be inert or derived from psychoactive plants. Wild Dagga is an example of such a plant. Indeed, there is a significant plausibility that the plants have been contaminated by mold, pesticides, salmonella, or heavy metals.

The thing is, synthetic cannabinoids are not natural. These substances are shipped to the US in bulk after being mass-produced overseas. In the US, the plants are first dissolved to be mixed later with dried vegetation. The liquid is then absorbed. There is a lack of precision and accuracy in the whole process. As a result, you might notice significant inconsistencies within a packet or in batches.

Numerous synthetic cannabinoids are available, all of which stimulate CB1 receptors, similar to THC, the active ingredient of marijuana which is responsible for providing the high. However, the intensity differs, and so does the period for which the effects last. Some of these synthetic substances are provided with the central ring structure of the molecule of THC, but a lot of them do not. Complications arise when some synthetic cannabinoids lead to stimulation of non-cannabinoid receptors. It becomes difficult to anticipate their effects in such cases. Furthermore, you cannot find out which synthetic compound is a part of the product you bought.

THC is not the only ingredient in natural marijuana. Other components are present in it as well, including cannabidiol. These ingredients play a role in balancing the adverse effects of THC. However, these constituents are not present in synthetic cannabinoids, which increases their risk. Furthermore, there is also a chance that these synthetic compounds are contaminated with other chemicals. These chemicals could be anything like opioids or even rat poison.

The creation of synthetic cannabinoids was initially by researchers in the US whose sole objective was to find out more about the structure and function of the cannabinoid receptors. They did not think that their recipe would be used by illegal drug labs for producing synthetic cannabinoids.

Why is Synthetic Cannabinoid being Used?

Synthetic cannabinoids are used for a variety of purposes. Perhaps the target is using a new drug for experimentation with a psychoactive substance. In some cases, people might consume it accidentally, mistaking it to be a natural plant. It takes merely one experience with the synthetic weed for people to be clear that the effects of these substances are not the same as that of marijuana and can be quite overwhelming.

Synthetic cannabinoids are considered as an alternative to cannabis, which is prohibited by law. These compounds do not show on urine analysis. Therefore, individuals who want to avoid a positive result for THC drug test, like military members or those on parole might turn to synthetic cannabinoids. However, while this might seem like a good deal on hindsight, the truth is that one puts his life in jeopardy by doing so. The compound can impact your health significantly for the worse. The reason that these potentially life-threatening products are so successful lies in the prohibition of cannabis.

Furthermore, synthetic cannabis is relatively cheaper and more potent than marijuana. Thus, people with low or no income are more inclined towards it.

How do People Take it?

These synthetic substances are consumed in ways more or less similar to cannabis. They can be taken with tobacco or can also be rolled up into joint to be smoked. A pipe or bong can also be used to smoke these with the presence of tobacco.

With the prevalence of e-cigarettes, it has also been reported that some use the technology for synthetic cannabinoids as well, wherein e-liquids incorporated with synthetic cannabinoids are available. The compound can also be swallowed or eaten with food. Mixing it with a drink is also something that people do.

Is Synthetic Cannabinoid Legal?

The drug is psychoactive and falls under the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act, which makes it illegal to indulge in selling or giving away of the substance.

Similar to driving when drunk, driving when high is illegal, not to mention dangerous. In case you are found guilty, you can be penalized with a hefty fine. You might also find yourself facing a criminal charge and possible prison sentence.

If you are caught supplying drugs anywhere by the police, the law can also hold the management of the premise where you were providing the drug responsible.

There are some synthetic cannabinoids which were legal previously. However, most of them have been illegal for the most part. Most of the synthetic cannabinoids and the mixtures that comprise of the illegal drugs fall in the category of class B drugs. Thus, it is unlawful to possess, sell, or give away these drugs.

It is prudent to note that the Psychoactive Substances Act came into effect from 26th May 2016. Following this act, all of these drugs are illegal and cannot be produced, supplied, or imported under the law.

Misleading Advertising

The manufacturers of synthetic cannabinoids try to evade the law by ensuring that their products carry a label that they are not be used for human consumption. Other terms like “natural” can also be used to mislead people. These products are made available in sleek packages that gives them a more legitimate look. However, all this cannot eradicate the fact that synthetic cannabis is not wholly natural.

Companies also try to reduce the danger of these compounds by making them innovatively like Spice, Joker, and Black Mamba. Since some of these names have a close association with cannabis culture, consumers of cannabis can be confused. Since these products are readily available online and at gas stations, people have started believing that they are safe to use and are legal.

Effects of Synthetic Cannabinoid

Panic attacks and psychosis can occur owing to an overdose of synthetic cannabinoids. The consequences can be sure. An incident from Iowa in 2010 is reported wherein a teen smoked K2 with a few friends. After this, he told his friends that he was going to hell and he then shot himself fatally after getting home. A similar incident was noted in Illinois when a 19-year-old succumbed to death after his car jumped a retaining wall before flying 15 feet and crashing into a house. He had spoken to his brother around 90 minutes prior to the accident and had told him that he was smoking legal potpourri. Synthetic cannabinoids were purchased from a local shopping mall in both cases.

THC and synthetic cannabinoids both act on the same cell receptors in the brain, which is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol.

Few scientific studies have been conducted with regards to the effect of these synthetic substances on the human brain. However, it is well-known that they bind to cell receptors more strongly compared to marijuana. And thus, their effects are stronger. As a result, the health effects can be dangerous and unpredictable.

Since there are inconsistencies in the batches of these synthetic cannabinoids and their chemical composition is not known, their effects might be drastically different from what one expects.

The effect of synthetic cannabis is influenced by

  • The weight, size and overall health of individuals
  • Whether the individual uses it on a regular basis
  • Whether the person is taking some other drugs
  • The amount of substance taken
  • The strength of the chemical

Since synthetic cannabis is new, not a lot of information is readily available regarding its effects. This holds true even for the safety of the drug. What is known is that its effects are somewhat similar to cannabis with some more harmful and negative effects included as well.

  • Neurological and psychiatric effects

Anxiety, aggression, agitation, nightmares, dysphoria, loss of consciousness, panic attacks, catatonia, hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, unrest, alogia, uncontrolled emotions, cognitive impairment, amnesia, syncope, headache, insomnia, slurred speech, seizures, psychosis, ischemic stroke, and suicidal tendencies can develop.

  • Cardiovascular effects

The patient might experience symptoms like tachycardia, chest pains, hypertension, cardiac ischemia, pallor, palpitations, arrhythmias, bradycardia, and orthostatic hypotension.

  • Neuromuscular and skeletal effects

The use of the substance might result in loss of use of the extremities, sensation of tingling or numbness, tremors, psychomotor agitation or retardation, dystonia or hypertonia, hyperreflexia or hyperextension.

  • Renal effects

Can result in acute renal injury or oliguria.

  • Effects on the endocrine system

It can result in acidosis, hyperglycemia, or hypokalemia.

  • Gastrointestinal effects

Can result in symptoms like diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, changes in appetite, and hyperemesis.

  • Ocular effects

The patient might develop blurred vision, conjunctivitis, visual hallucinations, mydriasis, or nystagmus.

  • Respiratory effects

Respiratory depression or tachypnea might occur. 

  • Miscellaneous effects

The patient can also experience symptoms like sweating, tinnitus, rhabdomyolysis, and carcinogenicity.

Difference between Natural Marijuana and Synthetic Cannabinoids

Natural marijuana harvest is done in significant amount via cannabis plants for medicinal or recreational purposes. It is easy to recognize someone who is under the influence of the active ingredient of the plant, THC. Once the substance is consumed, it makes its way to the brain via the bloodstream. Changes in mood, difficulty to think, and impaired body movement are some of the symptoms that a person develops.

Synthetic cannabinoids, on the other hand, is not naturally grown. It is manufactured. A lot of names have been given to this fake weed, including Skunk, Spice, and K2. You can purchase these drugs legally online, at gas stations, and certain shops. The initial experience of synthetic cannabinoids might be similar to natural marijuana. However, the high produced with synthetic compounds is stronger. It can also result in high blood pressure and agitation with anxiety. Nausea and vomiting may also occur. As per some reports, the compound can also lead to confusion, chest pain, hallucinations, and dizziness. In some cases, things can take a severe turn with symptoms like Seizures, renal injury, cardiac damage, and psychosis. It can even be fatal.

The synthetic compounds make use of the base of dried plants for holding the chemical substances that are sprayed on. The drug that is thus produced is smoked after being in rolled paper or can be inhaled via vaporizer unit. These chemicals can be dangerous and unpredictable, even being life-threatening at times. Since there is no regulation of the combination of these chemicals, the impact it has on the user cannot be predicted.

What can We do to Protect Ourselves?

The risks associated with synthetic cannabinoids can be attributed to their inconsistent dosage, contamination, mixing, and substitution. Since people manufacture and sell these drugs secretly, their quality cannot be confirmed. It is vital that adults and students are educated by teachers, parents, and health personnel regarding the risks of these products. Hazards of improper manufacturing processes need to be explained, as well.

Natural marijuana is the first choice for most people. However, since it is illegal and yet desired but not accessible, people inevitably turn to synthetic options.

It is mostly overseas where synthetic cannabinoids are manufactured. It is crucial that a crackdown is conducted by foreign governments, particularly in Asia on the illegal drug factories. Furthermore, the shipping companies also need to be more vigilant for detecting the transportation of illegal drugs into the system. Hand-held detectors can identify some but not all synthetic cannabinoids. However, the process can be tedious.


To summarize it all, synthetic cannabinoids are man-made chemicals and not natural marijuana. They are sold under false pretenses as being safe and legal. This is far from reality. The truth is that these chemicals are more potent and dangerous than real-marijuana and can have severe physical and mental effects. The chemical structure of these substances is changed frequently by the manufacturers so that they can avoid detection by authorities. As a result, their exact composition cannot be determined. The consequences of the use of these substances can be sure. And people can develop convulsions, seizures, agitation, and dependency. Death may also result. Therefore, extreme caution is mandatory. One must take precautions to avoid ingestion or inhalation of these chemicals. They need to be removed from shops and measures should be taken to prevent youth from buying them.

Public health alerts have been issued in multiple states of the US. Legislation is in progress for limiting the possession, use, and sale of these substances. Legislation has been passed in the New York City which forbids use or sale of the chemical and its variations. Offenders can be sentenced to prison and be liable to pay heavy fines.

Apart from penalties, it is essential that authorized take required measures to treat individuals addicted to these drugs. Penalties alone would not be adequate to deal with the vulnerable youth who has become addicted to this dangerous chemical.

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