Don’t be fooled by the moniker: Synthetic marijuana is nothing like the real thing.
Also known as K2, spice, or green giant, synthetic marijuana was developed in the 1980s by John Huffman, a professor at Clemson University, who was doing research on chemicals to treat cancer and AIDS. Though he developed novel cannabinoids, he warned against using them and said those who did were “idiots.” Nonetheless, because synthetic marijuana is often cheaper than the real thing, legal (in certain jurisdictions), still gets people high, and doesn’t show up in a drug test, there’s still a market for it. That said, there are also considerable health risks that come with using a substance far more dangerous than its all-natural counterpart.
Synthetic marijuana is composed of artificial chemicals that act on the brain’s cannabinoid receptors, just as marijuana does. It’s been shown to cause psychotic episodes, vomiting, nausea, catatonia, increased heart rate, kidney failure, and even death. Synthetic marijuana is also much more addictive than actual cannabis, and can be anywhere from two to 100 times more intense than organic THC. On account of its variability, people often have little idea how the synthetic chemicals will affect them, given there’s little information on the labs that created them and little regulation around novel chemicals that are being developed too fast for the government to regulate or immediately outlaw.
In 2015, New York City officials said they saw more than 6,000 emergency room visits on account of synthetic marijuana, while that year at least 15 people were documented to have fatally overdosed from it. Because of instances like this, cities like New York have aimed to regulate synthetic marijuana and ban the sale of it from bodegas, despite it being legal on a federal level.
It’s often unknown which ingredients exactly are in a package of synthetic marijuana. Many of the chemicals are said to be similar to those used in pesticide sprays. Moreover, chemists are constantly synthesizing new chemicals, which come with little safety information or validation from health authorities.
So despite its bright, showy packaging and widespread availability, synthetic marijuana is nothing you want to be putting in your body.