Headlines tell a frightful story: Again and again, we read about synthetic marijuana causing users to experience side-effects that range from debilitating stupor and psychosis, to coma and death. To be sure, this is no media hoax. According to Newsweek’s June 11th, 2015 article entitled “Synthetic Marijuana Deaths Tripled This Year”, author Max Kutner explicates on this headline. The details are saddening.
By now, we all know that synthetic marijuana is harmful and can be deadly in some instances. However, most of us don’t really know what synthetic marijuana even is. First, what it is not. Synthetic marijuana is not hydroponically grown weed. In fact, it’s not marijuana at all. It contains chemicals that are not ever found in any type of marijuana, in any form. While marijuana is essentially nonlethal, “synthetic marijuana” is definitely a dangerous, potentially deadly intoxicant.
What is commonly referred to as “synthetic marijuana” is actually plant matter, not cannabis to be sure, sprayed or soaked in a chemical stew. These chemicals vary from brand to brand, and even batch to batch.
Although these chemicals are not found in marijuana, such experimental chemicals affect the same anandamide receptors in the brain as THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids found in cannabis. Anandamide was the first endogenous ligand found, and early on these receptors were sometimes referred to as “Anandamide receptors.” At this point in time, this is a disused term.
Now more commonly referred to as cannabinoid receptors, binding sites for our endocannabinoids (Anandamine/AEA, 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), and other ligands), these are a type of cell membrane receptors, classed among the G protein-coupled receptor superfamily, and both marijuana-derived cannabinoids, as well as lab-created synthetics bind to these receptors.
There, most similarities end between the synthetics and natural cannabinoids. Our endocannabinoid system is found throughout our brain and other tissues, and it’s why marijuana affects us in so many ways. It’s also why these other chemicals affect us.
Some more well known known brands of “synthetic marijuana” include “K2” and “Spice”. These are somewhat generic terms referring to these products, not a trademarked product like Pepsi or Coke, and may be produced by any of various labs. There’s also 8-Ball, Baby J, Kush, Joker, Black Mamba, Kronic, Black Majic Smoke, Cloud 9, Funky Green Stuff, and many others.
These drugs are crudely manufactured, with no controls as to the dosage, and no indication on the package as to which particular synthetics are ingredients. Often sold in small, colorful foil packets usually marked as “incense”, appearing much like single-serving vitamin powder packets, K2 and Spice are produced all around the world for consumption where this blend is still legal. In many places, these substances are now forbidden by law.
These drugs should rightly be referred to as “anandamide” drugs, possibly “synthetic cannabinoids”, but certainly not “synthetic marijuana”. Why is this so?
It’s because anandamide receptors are what these chemicals affect in the body and brain and also because these are not true synthetic cannabinoids, if by “cannabinoid” we mean chemicals identical to those naturally found in the cannabis plant, but rather lab synthesized novel creations.
After decades of research, the terminology has evolved, and the ligands our bodies make that work with these receptor sites are termed “endocannabinoids”. It seems that while murky, defining lab-created chemicals that bind to these receptors as “synthetic cannabinoids” is now, technically, correct.
These other chemicals sprayed onto K2 and Spice leaves (mint or other herbs) such as HU-210, JWH-018, and JWH-073, just to name a few, are structurally similar in some ways to naturally-occurring cannabinoids, but never found in nature. Therefore, to refer to them a “synthetic marijuana” is a misnomer, as marijuana definitely refers to the cannabis plant and its products. This disambiguation clears up quite a bit.
These new lab-made chemicals possess adverse effects attributable to the fact that such are full agonists to the cannabinoid receptors, CB1R and CB2R, while THC is only a partial agonist. Further, some synthetics degrade into other metabolites that are also full agonists. What this means is that no matter how much marijuana or THC-based product is consumed, THC will never be able to saturate, and therefore activate, all of the receptor population as the synthetics have the potential to do.
Interestingly enough, there are “real” synthetic cannabinoids (what an oxymoron!), literally identical to those found in cannabis. These chemicals have not yet been isolated from any other plant. Cannabinoids are the novel class of chemicals founds only in marijuana and hemp, including THC and CBD.
So far, we’ve discovered many, many more than that. Each type of marijuana has a unique cannabinoid profile. And each cannabinoid modulates the total effects of the plant, even as many are not psychoactive.
There do exist cannabiniods that are actually identical synthetic analogs of the naturally occurring substances, THC and CBD, unlike K2 and Spice, which contain synthetics often resembling marijuana-derived cannabinoids, but always having significant differences in chemical structure.
One such product is called “Marinol®“, or dronabinol, first approved by the FDA in 1981, and again for other conditions in 1985. Synthetic THC was once produced using sesame oil in a highly complex process. This drug is, in fact, FDA-approved to treat loss of appetite associated with AIDS, as well as nausea associated with chemotherapy. While this drug is not derived from marijuana or hemp, it is, in fact, a true analog of THC, the most well-known cannabinoid found in marijuana. It is not found in hemp, save in trace amounts.
Sativex® is another medical cannabis product making the news. Many think that it is just another drug company’s brand of THC, Marinol with a different name. However, Sativex isn’t synthetic marijuana at all; rather, it’s a cannabis extract containing both THC and CBD, as well as other minor cannabinoids. Many users of Marinol complained of symptoms not often observed in marijuana users. Isolated THC was the culprit.
When THC is consumed alone, side-effects can be many and varied. When ingested, or otherwise consumed with other cannabinoids, these other substances like CBD tend to eliminate such issues. Therefore, whether synthetic or natural, Sativex promises to be a better product. It was approved in 2001 in the UK for neuropathic pain, spasticity, overactive bladder, and other debilitating symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
In summary, it’s clear that the language used in the media these days regarding synthetic marijuana is anything but clear. There’s marijuana, it’s extracts, and other preparations. Then there’s Sativex, a standardized cannabis plant extract. We also have Marinol, a completely synthetic THC drug that is not collected from the cannabis plant, but rather manufactured. And finally, we have K2 and Spice, “synthetic marijuana” as news outlets would have us believe.
It’s important to have our terminology and basic knowledge correct when discussing any issue or topic. Therefore, it is imperative that the population begin becoming acquainted with which drugs are
which, or we risk mis-educating our youth, as well as adults. The risk associated with K2 and Spice are leagues higher than the risks of marijuana, the worst hazard being arrest, as consuming and possessing its flowers and extracts derived therefrom is illegal, but not ever deadly.
Authored by D Alban
Copyright 2017 H Miller, D Alban