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Why Synthetic Cannabis Is So Deadly: An Unnatural Born Killer

Matt Weeks
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It seems counter-intuitive that a substance as dangerous as synthetic cannabis is legal while the healing plant remains illegal in many regions. 

It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.

Although no one ever died from cannabis consumption, the same is not true for lab-made approximations, which — although usually legal — have been responsible for hundreds of deaths and many more ill health effects this year already.

Gloved Hand Holding out a Bag of Synthetic cannabis

Image Credit: Busliq

Synthetic cannabinoid products, known by street names like Spice, K2, Scooby Snax and fake weed, are legal drugs created to simulate the effects of cannabis. The drugs are typically engineered by combing plant material and spices together, then spraying the mixture with psychotropic man-made chemicals with the goal of mirroring the effects of THC.

Dangers of Synthetic Cannabis

The result is a largely unregulated brain-altering substance that can cause nausea, chills, psychosis, heart attacks, shortness of breath, kidney failure and even death. What’s more—as time goes on, the synthetic cannabis products have become more dangerous thanks to loopholes within the American regulatory system.

Most synthetic drugs come from overseas laboratories and skirt U.S. government rules by constantly changing their ingredients to bypass laws that seek to ban harmful substances. Once someone points out a new harmful chemical in synthetic cannabinoids, testing must occur before banning the substance in America (a lengthy process in itself). So, manufacturers simply change their recipes and introduce new, untested products into the marketplace.

FDA Logo in front of a blurred American flag

Image Credit: Shutterstock

For a little more background: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not thoroughly vet every product that arrives into our grocery stores, restaurants and quick-service gas station marts. Instead, the FDA has a list of banned substances, as does the other governmental outlet that exercises authority in this sphere, the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Products that use only legal — or not-yet-banned — substances can take up shelf space in American markets. No matter what the outcome of their use might be. You know all of those snake oil pills that claim to promote weight loss? Or increased cognitive performance but have no solid proof of working? The same idea applies here. Some synthetic cannabis products even put labels like “not for human consumption” on their packaging. This a cynical attempt to skirt the legal requirements of food and drug products.

Patient being loaded onto ambulance

Image Credit: Jaromir Chalabala

Poisonous Ingredients and Overdoses

How bad can it get? For some communities, the flaunting of America consumer protections is devastating.

For example, Illinois officials discovered an outbreak of severe bleeding among synthetic cannabis users. Researchers then traced the cause back to a chemical in the product called brodifacoum, the active ingredient in rat poison. More than fifty people ended up in hospital.

In July 2018 alone, Washington D.C. had more than 300 reports of synthetic cannabis overdoses. Since March 2018, there have been forty five overdose cases in Wisconsin — and that’s only what’s been reported.

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Image Credit: Red Handed

While most of these instances involve the rat poison chemical, it’s not the only synthetic substance that has negative consequences. Some companies load their synthetic cannabis products with chemicals that are 85 times more potent than THC, leading users to experience zombie-like effects.

In fact, most synthetic cannabis products are more powerful than the real thing. Compared to THC, the naturally occurring intoxicating ingredient in cannabis, the synthetic stuff has no chill. THC functions in the brain (and throughout the body’s endocannabinoid system) as a partial agonist of cannabinoid receptors. That means it partially stimulates special areas in your body, causing a high. The lab-made stuff isn’t so gentle. Chemicals in the lab are full agonists, and completely permeate the brain’s cannabinoid receptors. Essentially, they slam your brain on every use.

animated brain sparking and having electrical activity

Image Credit: Yurchanka Siarhei

Why do People Consume Synthetic Cannabis?

What’s more, it’s nearly impossible to administer a correct dose of synthetic cannabis because the products aren’t made with any sort of conformity. Packages of synthetic cannabis can be overly potent or very dull. There’s no way for a user to know. The next could contain a small amount of intoxicating chemicals, or a glut of rat poison.

Many people who have used synthetic cannabis, like this Reddit poster, report having unexpectedly terrible experiences. These episodes with synthetic cannabis products seem to “come out of nowhere” despite having someone having used it in the past.

Synthetic cannabis is test tube

Image Credit: Gai Kova

And at least one 16-year-old girl has suffered permanent brain damage following a single hit.

So why do people do it? Well, it’s not illegal. People who are worried about THC showing up in urine tests often mistakenly believe that synthetic cannabinoids are untraceable. The fake stuff is also inexpensive. For people on a budget who are itching to get high or seek a respite from chronic pain it offers an option. Synthetic cannabis can seem like a sensible alternative.

It makes a certain perverse sense. Which product would you think would be more dangerous: The Schedule I narcotic or the legal packet available at your local 7-11? It’s a question you’d better get right. Your life may depend on it.

 

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Matt Weeks

A writer living and working in Athens, GA, Matt's work has appeared in various newspapers, books, magazines and online publications over the last 15 years. When he's not writing, he hosts bar trivia, plays in local bands, and makes a mean guacamole. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master's degree in organizational theory. His favorite movie is "Fletch."

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