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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 so dangerous is legal while the healing plant remains illegal in many regions. 

It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.

Although there has never been a death from cannabis use, the same cannot be said for lab-made approximations, which — although usually legal —have been tied to 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 that are meant to mirror the effects of THC.

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 are made in overseas laboratories and skirt U.S. government rules by constantly changing their ingredients to bypass laws that seek to ban harmful substances. Once a new harmful chemical in synthetic cannabinoids has been identified, tested and banned in America (a lengthy process in itself), 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 is introduced 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 are allowed to 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 in a cynical attempt to skirt the legal requirements of food and drug products.

Patient being loaded onto ambulance

Image Credit: Jaromir Chalabala

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

For example, after Illinois officials discovered an outbreak of severe bleeding among synthetic cannabis users, researchers traced the cause back to a chemical in the product called brodifacoum—the active ingredient in rat poison. More than 50 people were hospitalized.

In July 2018 alone, Washington D.C. had more than 300 reports of synthetic cannabis overdoses. Since March 2018, there have been 45 overdose cases in Wisconsin—and that’s only what’s been reported.

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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 psychoactive 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

What’s more, it’s nearly impossible to administer a correct dose of synesthetic 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 if the next hit will contain a small amount of psychoactive chemicals, or a glut of rat poison.

Many people who have used synesthetic cannabis, like this Reddit poster, report having unexpectedly terrible experiences with synthetic cannabis products that seemed to “come out of nowhere” despite 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 synesthetic 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, 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.


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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