What Is Synthetic Marijuana?

K2 or Spice is a synthetic cannabis drug that consists of a mixture of materials that have been enhanced with mind-altering chemicals. It’s a designer drug with a diverse chemical structure that’s abused to obtain a high that some say feel similar to using  marijuana. The synthetic mind-altering chemicals may also be sold as liquids to be inhaled in e-cigarettes.1

Although it’s often claimed that synthetic cannabinoid products contain natural ingredients from plants, the only natural part is the dried plant materials, sometimes- not even that. Some manufacturers use artificial materials as a base for K2.  Several chemical tests have shown that the mind-altering ingredients sprayed on the plants are made in laboratories. In 2014, there were over 150 synthetic cannabinoids known to scientists, and the list is continually growing.

In 2015 alone, the National Forensic Laboratory Information System identified 84 new synthetic cannabinoids.

It Was Created by Scientists at Clemson University

K2 was initially made in a laboratory by scientists from Clemson University and a researcher called John W. Huffman. They were looking to create a drug that could enhance the medicinal properties of THC while eliminating its psychotropic effects. Soon after Huffman and his colleagues published their findings in academic literature, drug manufacturers began selling synthetic cannabinoids on the market. The first synthetic compound that appeared on the street was known as K2. The main chemical was called JWH-18, named after John W. Huffman.

How Is It Different from Marijuana?

Many people have used synthetic cannabinoids as an alternative to marijuana since 2002. Spice/K2 is also called synthetic marijuana or “fake weed” because the chemicals it contains are similar to the chemicals present in the marijuana plant. The drug is also marketed as a safe and legal alternative to marijuana. However, it’s far from safe; it can impact the human brain more powerfully than marijuana. The side effects can be unpredictable and, in some cases, even life-threatening.

However, marijuana has been proven to have medical benefits. Many states in the U.S., and many countries around the world, have legalized it for medical and recreational purposes. A large number of chemicals that are sprayed on synthetic weed are illegal and haven’t been proven to have beneficial properties. The danger of K2 is in its human-made compounds that haven’t been thoroughly researched. Researchers believe that synthetic cannabinoids can be up to 100 times more potent than THC.

Street Names of Synthetic Marijuana

Spice products are sold in colorful foil packages to attract consumers’ attention. They contain 1-3 g of dried matter (leaves, flowers, resin) to which one or more synthetic cannabinoids have been added. As manufacturers try to stay ahead of authorities, they continually change the chemicals added to the product to circumvent the law.

The products are sold under a range of different street names, including:












Ultra Chronic

Many of them circulate under exotic names such as:

Bombay Blue


Ice Bud Extra Cold

Herbal Dream

Red Magic

Spice Gold Spirit

Spice Tropical Synergy

Yucatan Fire

How Do People Use K2?

The most common way of using fake weed is by smoking the dried plant materials in a cigarette. Some people also mix the drug with real marijuana or brew it as tea. It’s not uncommon for people to buy it as a liquid to vaporize in e-cigarettes.

Is K2 Safe?

As marijuana is becoming legal around the world, people mistakenly think that all products that are branded as marijuana are safe.

However, K2 is more potent than medical marijuana. Although research is limited, researchers know that synthetic cannabinoids act on the same brain cell receptors as THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol).2 Their findings have also shown that some of the chemicals found in Spice tend to bind more strongly than marijuana to the same receptors to which THC and CBD attach. Consequently, they can produce more potent and sometimes dangerous side effects.

Synthetic cannabinoids can be more dangerous when:

There is the presence of a mental health problem (the drug can intensify the symptoms of anxiety and paranoia)

An existing heart problem is present

Taken in combination with alcohol or other drugs

Driving or operating heavy machinery occurs after taking them

What makes the drug risky is that no one can ever be sure what they are taking. The active chemicals are always changing so that manufacturers can avoid the law. Different batches can vary in chemical compounds and strength. Consequently, it’s easy for people to take a higher-than-intended amount, or to take an unfamiliar substance under a familiar name.

What Does K2 Contain?

According to the Designer Drug Research Unit of the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA’s) Intramural Research Program, it’s hard to know precisely what is in K2.

At this time, hundreds of synthetic cannabinoids have been detected. As the drugs are manufactured in illegal laboratories, the chemicals can vary from batch to batch. The health risks are even higher because the products are not inspected for quality.

Those who have tried synthetic cannabinoids say that their effects are similar to those produced by marijuana, such as:

Elevated mood


Awareness of surrounding objects and conditions

Delusional or disordered thinking

Is It Addictive?

Even though K2 is marketed as a safe alternative to marijuana, NIDA states otherwise. According to them, the drug can be addictive.

Scientists have been trying to determine the effects of K2 by studying THC. In their view, long-term use of these drugs can lead to tolerance and dependence. The person abusing the drug will require larger doses of the substance to experience the same high. People who have abused the substance for a long time and who have tried to quit taking the drug have experienced a range of withdrawal symptoms, including:





Side Effects

Synthetic cannabis is a relatively new drug. There’s limited information available about its short- and long-term effects. But it’s been reported to have some side effects similar to cannabis, along with with some additional negative and more harmful side effects, including:





Concentration issues






Suicidal thoughts

Violent behavior



However, as the ingredients in the batches rapidly change, people who consume them can never know for sure what set of side effects they will experience. Moreover, two different people can consume the same batch but still develop different symptoms. The symptoms may depend on their predisposition to particular illnesses, as well as on any genetic susceptibilities they may have.

Factors That Effect Side Effects

The weight and size of the person

The amount taken

How often it was taken

Whether other drugs were taken at the same time

The nature and potency of the specific chemicals that the drug contains

Lack of Long-Term Studies

Researchers still haven’t identified the long-term side effects of K2. However, it’s believed that long-term marijuana use can negatively affect the development of the brain and lead to issues with thinking, learning, and memory. Considering that K2 is more potent than THC, researchers believe its long-term effects will be identical to or stronger than those of THC.


People who abuse Spice expose their brains to unidentified chemicals that haven’t been tested on humans.

As the drug can have a diverse structure, it’s difficult to know what exactly the person is buying. Consequently, it’s possible to experience a range of possible side effects, including overdose.

People have died from K2 overdoses, but it’s hard to know what amount of the drug, or what combination of chemicals, is deadly.

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