Spice, K2, Kronic: How To Spot A ‘Synthetic Marijuana’ Overdose

They may be legal, but 'hacked compounds' like K2 and Spice are bad news.

Synthetic marijuana
Photo by United States Marine Corps via Wikimedia

Synthetic marijuana, whether you call it Spice, K2, Kronic or some other snappy name, simply is not cannabis and could be very bad for you.

A retired chemistry professor from Clemson University, John W. Huffman, and his team developed synthetic cannabinoids or “SC” for two decades. They had hoped to create the chemicals to allow research on something chemically similar to THC and other natural cannabinoids since testing with the real thing was so prohibitive.

Little did they know that know when they began in the mid-1980s that their creations and hacked derivations would be popular as ‘legal weed.’

“Spice” and “K2” are just a couple of the commercial names for this product that has fared so well in popularity, due in large part to prohibition of real marijuana. If prohibition does anything well, it creates a space for entrepreneurs with more interest in making a buck than anything related to concern for the consumer.

Creators continue to change the formulations to skirt new laws or simply label the product as incense and “not for human consumption” while being sold alongside, glass pipes, herbal stimulants and aphrodisiacs at corner gas stations and head shops. It is typically smoked but can also be brewed into a tea or vaped.

It is believed that there are well over 150 types of SC that have been created. They appear to activate both the CB1 and CB2 receptors that cannabis does but in a wholly different, unpredictable and dangerous way. Because these are unregulated, untested products, their formulations vary wildly from product to product and can even vary from batch to batch of the same brand. The resulting public health risk is real.

The symptoms of overdose of synthetic cannabinoids are similar to overdose of opioids: respiratory depression, listlessness, confusion, vomiting, loss of consciousness, seizure or unresponsiveness. Add kidney injury, cardiotoxicity, suicidal thoughts and psychosis to that list and you see this is not marijuana. In fact, 20 deaths have been attributed to synthetic cannabinoids. Once again, this is not marijuana.

When asked why they use SC, adults in one research study cited that these compounds were more available, perceived as being legal, cheaper and helped them avoid failing a drug test.

We have created this beast through bad policy. Alcohol prohibition led to bathtub gin and people being poisoned from lead in bad moonshine.

Cannabis prohibition has led to this hazard. As cannabis enthusiasts it is our responsibility to help people know and understand the difference between the real and the synthetic version.

After more than 70 years of misinformation, we have a long way to go to educate people about the many benefits of cannabis, real marijuana, and this synthetic imposter should not be allowed to muddy the water. 

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