Synthetic cannabinoids: What are they? What are their effects?

Synthetic cannabinoids: What are they? What are their effects?

Cannabis has been around for thousands of years, with the first recorded use for it being in ancient China over 3000 years ago. Since then, it has almost certainly changed in one way or another, evolving over time, but we are seeing a new and alarming chapter in the story of cannabis hitting the streets.


Cannabis has been around for thousands of years, with the first recorded use for it being in ancient China over 3000 years ago. Since then, it has almost certainly changed in one way or another, evolving over time, but we are seeing a new and alarming chapter in the story of cannabis hitting the streets.

The fast-growing CBD industry is a great example of how cannabis is changing, as we are seeing its boom with the surge of increasing scientific evidence about its benefits for the human body.

However, there are some things that are more sinister.

First created in labs in the 1980s, synthetic cannabis was meant to be about getting a better understanding of how cannabinoids affect the human body. However, the cannabinoids that were created didn’t quite mimic natural cannabis exactly and it suddenly got into the hands of experimental, curious people who were looking for the next thing in all things cannabis.

What are synthetic cannabinoids?

Having carried out extensive research on the cannabis plant and how it affects the human body, researchers have discovered that the cannabinoids which are in the plant can interact with the human endocannabinoid system. This is a system which consists of three elements – endocannabinoids which are made naturally by the body, cannabinoid receptors and enzymes which break down the endocannabinoids.

When some of the compounds in cannabis (CBD or THC, for example) are taken, they can interact with the endocannabinoid system, giving your health and well-being a boost as well as possibly being able to help with some other health problems.

THC – or tetrahydrocannabinol – is the compound in marijuana that when it binds to one of the cannabinoid receptors it sends a message to the brain which gives you the ‘high’ that we associate with cannabis. This is why in many countries, other cannabinoids in the plant (like CBD) are legal – as they won’t make you high – but THC at higher levels is illegal – as it will make you high.

Synthetic cannabinoids were designed to mimic some of these cannabinoids, giving the user the ‘high’ by binding to these cannabinoid receptors in a similar way to THC. These synthetic cannabinoids, however, have nothing to do with the cannabis plant (hence the name ‘synthetic’) and were effectively made in a lab. They come in two forms – either as dried plant material which is smoked or as an e-liquid which can then be vaporised using an e-pen.

How are synthetic cannabinoids made and what do they do to you?

Synthetic cannabinoids which are to be smoked are made by spraying the chemical onto dried plant material which is then packaged to be smoked. The e-liquid uses the same chemicals which are infused into a ‘vape juice’ which is then put into an e-pen and vaped.

Synthetic cannabinoids were originally sold as ‘legal highs’ in the UK. Now they have been prohibited under the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act. They are most commonly known as ‘Spice’ or ‘K2’, but can also be known as ‘Black Mambo’, ‘Kronic juice’, ‘Joker’, ‘fake weed’ or ‘Kush’ amongst others.

Just as anything else on the black market, synthetic cannabinoids are changing in nature and vaping is a bit of a new kid on the block. Vaping can be a lot subtler than smoking and can often be disguised. It also means that unscrupulous people can put chemicals into e-liquid that consumers don’t even know is there, with very dangerous consequences for their health and even their lives.

These synthetic cannabinoids are often marketed as being ‘natural’ but actually, they are nothing of the sort. By being ‘natural’, we are given the impression that it is safe to take, and, also, it is nothing of the sort. There is a reason why synthetic cannabinoids can also be called the ‘zombie drug’ and this is because, although impacting on the same system as cannabis, that’s about where the similarity ends. The ‘zombie’ reference is linked to the zombie-like state that many users find themselves in.

The effects of synthetic cannabinoids

The effects of synthetic cannabinoids can be severe and life-threatening. It is also highly addictive, earning itself another nickname – ‘spack’ – in reference to its similarities to crack cocaine.

Some of the effects of spice and other synthetic cannabinoids include:

· It can make you feel happy and relaxed – hence why people take it and become quickly addicted

· Kidney damage

· Liver damage

· Psychosis

· Heart attack

· Stroke

· Anxiety, paranoia and suicidal thoughts

· Vomiting

· Aggression

They can also present extremely strong withdrawal symptoms, making it very difficult to come off.

Another important thing to note about synthetic cannabinoids is that they are forever changing to try to get around the law. This means that unless you have a testing lab in your back garden you are never really going to be sure of what chemicals you are actually going to be consuming. They are unregulated and unpredictable.

Many drug testing labs will not pick up on some synthetic cannabinoids meaning that the reason why many people try it in the first place is to get around detection for cannabis use.

And herein lies the problem.

Many people try synthetic cannabinoids as an alternative to cannabis. Believing that it is safe, natural, and undetectable by drug testing. However, it can be very addictive, life-threatening and the complete opposite of ‘natural’.

Synthetic cannabinoids and cannabis

In actual fact, synthetic cannabinoids and cannabis have almost nothing to do with each other. Apart from the fact that they can both affect the cannabinoid system and some of the effects of taking synthetic cannabinoids are similar to taking high THC cannabis, this is where the similarities end.

With an industry such as the cannabis and CBD industry, it is a shame that they are so closely linked, as this places another obstacle in the way of changing the stigma and attitudes towards the cannabis plant in its natural state – a plant which can be highly beneficial to many people’s health.

It is important for the cannabis industry to try to distance itself from synthetic cannabinoids – a feat which isn’t helped by it having names such as ‘fake cannabis’ or ‘fake weed’ – to enable it to be more widely accepted by society as a whole.

Changes in the cannabis laws

One of the main reasons why many people turn to synthetic cannabinoids like K2 or spice is because it doesn’t show up on a lot of drug tests. People who are looking for the effects of marijuana (with high THC levels) can believe that synthetic cannabinoids can give them the same effect but without them getting into trouble with the law or at work. In actual fact, they can get into far worse trouble with their health – or even life.

According to the Office for National Statistics [1], the number of deaths which have occurred including synthetic cannabinoids between 2015 and 2016 in England and Wales increased from 8 to 27. This number then rocketed from 2017 to 2018 to 818 cases which are caused by ‘new psychoactive substances’.

One of the most logical ways to deal with this pending crisis is by changing the laws about real cannabis. If by making it legal to use real, natural and safe cannabis, although it is unlikely that we will eliminate synthetic cannabinoids completely, it is likely that we can help to prevent a lot of people from turning to it – almost without realising what they are letting themselves in for.

Sources

1 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/datasets/deathsrelatedtodrugpoisoningbyselectedsubstances



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