Caroline Borst

Published on Feb 20 in News


“Synthetic Marijuana” first started making waves in 2014 when it was rumored that there was a legal alternative with the same effects as real cannabis. However, when more people began suffering from extreme side effects, like seizure and psychosis, people began questioning what synthetic marijuana really was. Whether it is people who prefer health risks to legal risks, or just a lack of education about the side effects, people are consuming synthetic marijuana at an alarming rate causing a few states to begin cracking down.


Not to be confused with the FDA-approved synthetic THC Marinol, synthetic marijuana is anything but approved or real. While the DEA has chased down large-scale operations, some small operations sell their very questionable products under established brand names like K2 and Spice, inconspicuously selling them on the shelves of gas stations and smoke shops. Hiding behind labels that read “not for human consumption,” and a myriad of ingredients as a way of maintaining their legality.

It needs to be understood that a synthetic cannabinoid is not a cannabis product, but a chemical equivalent that binds to the same receptors in the brain. THC, for example attaches to the CB1 receptor in the brain to produce a high and often euphoric feeling. Synthetic cannabinoids also bind here, but with a higher potency.

Synthetic cannabinoids can be anywhere from 2 to 100 times more potent than THC and can cause extreme side effects like vomiting, chest pain, vision blackouts, kidney damage, increased heart rate, high blood pressure, headaches, psychosis, seizures… the list goes on and on. Significant withdrawal symptoms have also been reported.


Synthetic marijuana was initially produced in the mid-1980’s by a Harvard Grad names John William Huffman. Huffman was an organic chemist and began synthesizing hundreds of novel cannabinoids in order to better understand their mechanisms. However, by 2008, following the publication of his work, one of the cannabinoids he produced, called JWH-018, appeared in a German forensic lab.

They named it “Spice.” Their manufacturing process was quick and had a short turnaround time. Naturally it didn’t take long for the more lucrative drug manufacturers to jump on the opportunity to get a piece of the pie.


Synthetic marijuana (molecule) is often shipped in overseas to manufacturers who prepare the product with things like high-proof alcohol and acetone solvents. It is essentially a process of reverse extraction. The synthetic molecules are dissolved in the solvent and introduced to a plantlike “host” material through a soaking or spraying process.

The product is not FDA regulated. An incorrectly mixed solution or an inconsistent spray job could result in a dangerously potent batch. The unfortunate consumer who happens to unknowingly purchase a bag with extra concentrated chemicals is likely to have some pretty scary side effects. Without any regulations, it is anyone’s guess as to how the products were made and what ingredients may have gone into them.


With cannabis becoming legal in many US states now, more and more people are on the hunt for its legal substitute. Ignorantly they believe that the synthetic marijuana they are ingesting is like the real thing. In July,2017 more than 100 people in Pennsylvania overdosed in a span of three days. New Jersey saw a spike in overdoses as well with 70 in April and another 40 in August. More recently Minnesota experienced more than 120 overdoses within two months.

Just a week ago, one small town in Indiana decided enough is enough. South Bend, Indiana has seen its fair share of bad side effects caused from synthetic marijuana. Just last year, three kids were rushed to the hospital, foaming from the mouth and experiencing overdose symptoms from consuming synthetic marijuana.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said, “I thought one of them was having a seizure until I saw two others that were in a similar situation.” He continued, “we called the paramedics, they made it. But it was a real wakeup call for me about just how harmful and dangerous some of these substances are.”

Beacon Health reported that there were 1,300 visits to the ER last year due to this drug, a staggering 300 person increase from the year before. As a result to the backlash, synthetic marijuana has been deemed “illegal,”but that isn’t stopping companies from finding loopholes. A simple change of ingredients and chemical makeup can allow the products to still be sold without breaking any laws.


Regardless of the loopholes, South Bend is not letting up. Karen White, a South Bend councilwoman expressed that individuals who are purchasing synthetic marijuana are “not aware of the impact that it has on them. It’s cheap, they buy it and then they have to suffer the impact of it.”

For now the city has mandated that any business caught selling the product will be fined between $250-$2,500. Pete Buttigieg said however, “a law and ordinance can only go so far,” stressing that it will have to go hand in hand with community outreach and education.

The thoughtless “advantages” really aren’t worth compromising your health or risking death. Hopefully the outreach and ordinances now being put in place will help keep this cannabis imposter from being consumed altogether. Stories like these are just another reason to stay strong in the fight for real cannabis and educating the public. The fact that I even have to write “real” is ridiculous.

Smoke safe out there.

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