What is Synthetic Cannabis Poisoning and How Can You Avoid It?

Smoke from Vaping

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), every US state has reported cases of synthetic cannabis poisoning over the past few years. The problem peaked in 2015, but fortunately, the incidences dropped to a few hundred this year.

Some experts suggest the decline is due to the recent legalization of hemp-derived cannabis products. However, now that some states are banning Delta 8 and possibly other up-and-coming minor cannabinoids, will we see another wave of synthetic cannabis poisoning? We have also noted how people continue to argue over whether or not the conversion of CBD or THC to Delta 8 makes it a synthetic cannabinoid, too.

This article aims to clarify how synthetic cannabis differs from natural cannabis compounds. We will cover what it can do to your body and mind and how abusing it can lead to hospitalization or even death. You will also learn what you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones from its adverse effects.

Synthetic Cannabis 101

First introduced in the early 2000s, Synthetic cannabis refers to any man-made chemical compounds marketed as alternatives to marijuana. It’s also known as synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic marijuana, legal bud, or fake weed. Some of the most popular brands include “Spice”, “K2”, “Blaze”, and “Northern Lights.”

Synthetic cannabinoids exist in various forms. It’s primarily available as liquids you can vape or add to your food or beverage. Some brands combine it with plant material to make it more acceptable among cannabis users. In the latter’s case, the synthetic compound is sprayed on dried herbal leaves, which are then packed into small bags. This gives them an appearance similar to traditional weed. Still, you’d likely find them labeled as “incense” or “potpourri” to get around the restrictions or “Not for Human Consumption” as some sort of disclaimer that most buyers recklessly ignore. 

Several manufacturers claim to produce synthetic cannabis from natural plant material. However, that is not often the case. Some companies try to mimic the chemical structures of cannabinoids to make them bind to ECS (endocannabinoid) receptors and induce similar effects as cannabis does.

The bar goes even lower, though. Since this market is unregulated, certain manufacturers choose to create an entirely new substance and advertise it as synthetic marijuana that triggers a “legal” high. These are the most dangerous forms because of their unpredictable nature and the lack of objective lab testing and clinical trials.

The Downsides of Synthetic Cannabis

No matter how much the brands insist, the effects of synthetic cannabinoids on the body and mind are vastly different compared to marijuana or hemp. Yes, it can make you feel relaxed and improve your mood, but the adverse effects tend to kick in faster than expected.

Why?

Research shows that some types are a hundred times stronger than THC. Given that natural cannabinoids may cause adverse reactions, imagine how much risk you’d be putting yourself in by consuming those surprisingly potent compounds.

To give you an idea, below are the common side effects of synthetic cannabis, as reported and experienced by its users:

  • Agitation
  • Confusion
  • Delusion
  • Dizziness
  • Lack of body coordination
  • Mood swings
  • Nausea
  • Sleepiness

In general, the euphoric state caused by synthetic cannabis lasts for up to 75 minutes. However, it leaves our system far slower at around 6 to 7 hours. During that period, these side effects become more likely to occur. Many try to avoid them and extend the “high” by taking more doses.

Frequent or chronic users of synthetic cannabinoids tend to experience the following conditions:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Excessive sweating
  • Intense headache
  • Increased irritability
  • Strong cravings
  • Vomiting

Prolonged exposure to these compounds leads to intense withdrawal symptoms, such as chest pain, difficulty breathing, and rapid heart rate. Ultimately, when left unchecked, this cycle leads to synthetic cannabis poisoning.

Recognizing the Signs of Synthetic Cannabis Poisoning

Based on the information gathered by the CDC, an individual who has overdosed on synthetic cannabis will exhibit the following:

  • Aggressive behavior
  • Elevated heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Mild to severe chest pains
  • Paranoia
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting

If the person does not receive proper medical attention immediately, synthetic cannabis poisoning can become fatal because it can also cause:

  • Cardiac arrest
  • Kidney failure
  • Stroke
  • Swelling in the brain

These deadly effects of artificial cannabinoids aren’t only because of their inherent toxicity. In some cases, the poisoning occurs because of its exposure to other chemical compounds harmful to the human body. The manufacturers did not extend care during the preparation or packing of the products, leaving the consumers to face the consequences on their own.

Why Do People Use Synthetic Cannabis

Having learned the significant health risks of synthetic cannabis, you might wonder why some persist in consuming them. More often than not, those people have been fooled by the marketing ploys or misinformation about synthetic cannabinoids. For example:

Using Synthetic Cannabis

You won’t get addicted to fake weed

A lot of first-time users were reeled in by this assumption. This might be an extension of the widespread belief that we can’t abuse or become dependent on marijuana. Whether this is true or not, this does not apply to the synthetic kind. As we have covered earlier, an addiction may develop if you want to continue experiencing its intense euphoric effects and keep the withdrawal symptoms at bay.

Drug tests won’t detect synthetic cannabis

While the chemical makeups of natural and synthetic cannabis differ, some modern drug screening may be sensitive enough to detect the presence of illicit substances in your blood, saliva, or urine. Moreover, the formulation of synthetic cannabinoids makes them linger in the body for several days, thereby increasing your chances of failing a drug test.

It’s the legal alternative to marijuana

Many organizations and government agencies have classified synthetic cannabis as “new psychoactive substances (NPS)” because they have mind-altering effects but are not as heavily regulated as natural cannabis. Different countries have also updated their legislations to include NPS in their respective lists of controlled substances.

For instance, here in the US, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) considered all “synthetically derived tetrahydrocannabinols (THC)” to be under Schedule I controlled substances. Some have taken this to mean any laboratory-made cannabis compounds, thereby implicating the isomerization of Delta 8 to create enough quantities for mass production. The DEA has not addressed this ambiguity, but there’s no denying that they are warning consumers against using the synthetic cannabis we described earlier.

What Does Schedule I Controlled Substances Mean?

Any substance that belongs to this drug classification should not be consumed for whatever reason because they have no accepted medical use, and you’d be at a higher risk of abusing it. Aside from synthetic cannabis, other chemical compounds under Schedule I include heroin, LSD, and ecstasy.

Marijuana also falls under this category, but some states allow its consumption and possession for those who have obtained a medical marijuana card. Otherwise, violators will be subjected to the harshest penalties, including imprisonment and substantial fines.

How to Avoid Synthetic Cannabis Poisoning

Here’s the thing: there is no guaranteed safe way to consume synthetic cannabis. The brand can make all sorts of claims about its source material or quality control. At the end of the day, however, these chemical compounds are just too unpredictable to the point of being life-threatening.

Nonetheless, it’s not uncommon for people to fall for the ads or become confused about the seemingly innocent labels. The frequently changing government restrictions on natural cannabinoids may also push some to consider these synthetic variants viable options.

Certain organizations engage in community-level initiatives to educate the public about the dangers of using synthetic cannabis. However, they have a long way to go. In contrast, the distributors have turned to craftier ways to lure those who are vulnerable, like young individuals or anyone who can’t afford or doesn’t have access to reliable cannabis brands.

If you’re looking for ways to protect yourself from accidentally purchasing or consuming synthetic cannabinoids, here are some helpful reminders and tips:

  • There is no such thing as “100% organic” or “all-natural” synthetic cannabinoids. Even if the product label indicates that it’s made of herbs, the element that makes it psychoactive is man-made.
  • The risk of overdosing does not decrease because each batch tends to have varying potency. The formulation is likely not standardized or batch-tested.
  • Always look for a product COA (certificate of analysis) from a reputable and independent laboratory. Reading through the list of ingredients won’t be enough to keep you safe from companies that deliberately hide the illicit origin or components of their products.

Is Synthetic Cannabis Poisoning Treatable?

The CDC states that there is no known cure or antidote for health conditions caused by synthetic cannabinoids. However, medical professionals can alleviate some of the symptoms and keep you from taking a turn for the worse.

Therefore, the key is immediate action. If any cannabis product—natural or synthetic—triggers the adverse effects we discussed earlier, stop using them immediately. In case of severe symptoms like chest pains, seizures, or stroke, contact 911, your healthcare provider, or the nearby poison control center.

If you or a loved one suffers from an addiction to synthetic cannabis, you can also reach out to various support services that can give you objective advice on what to do next. Remember, the withdrawal from this substance can be just as challenging and violent as any type of addiction. You’d likely need the assistance of rehabilitation experts to ensure everyone’s safety and success in recovering from the ill effects of synthetic cannabis.

Final Thoughts

Despite the lower rates of synthetic cannabis poisoning this year, the problem has not been completely eradicated. We need to continue spreading awareness about what these substances can do to us, especially in states where the recreational use of cannabis is not allowed.

The government’s ambiguity regarding this matter should not prevent us from pushing for safer alternatives to marijuana. For now, it seems like only the consumers’ vigilance and insistence on transparency and quality control can drive brands into researching and developing methods that do not sacrifice our health and safety.

If you’re looking for a fast-acting and effective means of harnessing the therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids, check out our list of the top CBD products of 2022. We also welcome any questions related to any cannabis brands that you might want to try.

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