Synthetic Cannabinoids
4 min

The Dangers Of Synthetic Cannabinoids

4 min

The term "synthetic cannabinoids" refers to hundreds of different man-made chemicals. Some people believe them to be legal and safe alternatives to marijuana. But just how safe—and legal—are these compounds, and what dangers do they pose?

Synthetic cannabinoids—like Kronic, Mr. Happy, or Scooby Snax—are part of a growing family of man-made chemicals. These chemicals are known as synthetic cannabinoids because it’s believed they work on the same receptors in the brain as tetrahydrocannabinol, or as it’s more commonly known, THC.


What Are Synthetic Cannabinoids?

There are currently over 300 synthetic cannabinoids in existence, and people are often under the impression that they are legal and safer than THC. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. While we know that they interact with CB1 receptors in a similar way to THC, there’s a lot more that we don’t know about these lab-created cannabinoids.

Natural cannabis is not limited to THC. In fact, we know that other chemicals found in marijuana, including cannabidiol, can help ease the negative side effects of THC like nausea or dizziness. The idea that the chemicals in cannabis work better together than in isolation is known as entourage effect, and cannabis researchers are learning more each day about how the interaction of various cannabinoids can prevent more unpleasant outcomes.

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The Good And Bad Of Natural Vs. Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic solutions lack the ability to produce the entourage effect because, in most cases, they don’t contain other cannabinoids. While in some cases they’re made by taking the central ring structure of a THC molecule and modifying it in a lab, many more don’t do that.

As with many synthetic creations, there’s also no way to know what other chemicals are in the mix. Tests have found that they can be laced with everything from opioids to rat poison, and there is no way to know or test what’s in the substance without extensive equipment. They are often mixed with natural plants and herbs, which allows them to use the word “natural” on packaging.

So, in general, to be classified as a synthetic cannabinoid, a chemical just has to affect the CB1 receptors, with no limits placed on other, non-cannabinoid receptors in the body.

Testing For Synthetic Cannabinoids

Fortunately, there are some very cheap and reliable tests available for those who suspect they may be in possession of some doctored weed. There are two ways to go about testing your cannabis. One is to test specifically for synthetic cannabinoids, the other is to test whether your weed is truly high-THC weed, or just hemp.

EZ Test For Bunk Weed: this test specifically looks for MDMB-4en-PINACA, a common synthetic cannabinoid. If it's present, then the solution will turn a pink/lavender colour. Otherwise, it will remain clear.

EZ Test For CBD/THC: rather than testing for synthetic cannabinoids, this test assesses whether there is a higher concentration of CBD or THC in your weed. The advantage to this test is that it can indirectly indicate the presence of any of the 300+ synthetic cannabinoids.

If the test shows up pink/purple, then that means your weed has more CBD than THC. If you've been sold this as recreational cannabis, and it gets you high, you can probably assume it's been sprayed with a synthetic cannabinoid to mimic THC. If it shows up blue, then you have weed containing THC. Though this does not necessarily mean it doesn't also contains a synthetic cannabinoid.


Legal Status Of Synthetic Cannabinoids

Aside from raising serious questions about the physical harm synthetic cannabinoids can cause, the other false assumption of synthetic cannabinoids is that they are completely legal.

As we’ve learned more about the potential harm caused by synthetic cannabinoids, they have become increasingly illegal around the world. By 2010, synthetic cannabinoids were illegal in most of Europe, North America, South America, Asia, and Australasia.

As these designer drugs continue to evolve, countries have introduced blanket bans with the Psychoactive Substances Act.


Uses Of Synthetic Cannabinoids

While their evolution has been circumspect, synthetic cannabinoids were originally created for legitimate research purposes. Due to restrictions on THC research (thanks to prohibitive drug laws), synthetic cannabinoids were created to help scientists learn about the way in which our cannabinoid receptors work. During research in the early 1990s, cannabinoids such as CP-55,940 were the reason scientists discovered cannabinoid receptors in the first place.

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They were never intended to be used for recreational purposes, but several synthetic cannabinoids were used for clinical reasons. First-generation analogues, like Nabilone, were used in the '80s to increase appetite and diminish nausea.

That being said, synthetic cannabinoids are for sale in many places, and often treated as a substitute for marijuana. Known by a variety of brand names—K2, Spice, Joker, Black Mamba, AK-47, Mr. Happy, Scooby Snax, Kush, and Kronic to name but a few—they are often smoked like marijuana or brewed in a tea. It’s also possible to acquire them in liquid form for use in a vape.


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For many people, the draw of synthetic cannabinoids is that they contain “natural material” and induce a man-made high, which, in theory, might seem safer to some. Yet, the biggest tell that these substances can be actively harmful is seen on the label.

While they are wrapped in bright foil packaging or bottles, almost all synthetic cannabinoids carry the warning “not for human consumption”. This is supported by the man who is responsible for the first synthetic cannabinoids, Professor John W. Huffman. Huffman was the first scientist to synthesise cannabinoids; he is quick to caution that ''their effects in humans have not been studied, and they could very well have toxic effects. They absolutely should not be used as recreational drugs".

While the positive effects of synthetic cannabinoids are similar to the effects of marijuana, the negatives are much more dramatic—and dangerous. Those who have been admitted to the hospital after using synthetic cannabinoids recreationally have experienced rapid heart rates, vomiting, violent outbursts, and suicidal thoughts. Synthetics have also been shown[1] to cause seizures and kidney damage, and to increase blood pressure while limiting blood supply to the heart.

There is also a serious risk of addiction with synthetic cannabinoids.


Is It Dangerous To Use Synthetic Cannabinoids?

Simply put: YES!

While there is definite therapeutic potential in synthetic cannabinoids (research shows[2] that synthetic CBD may help treat seizures in rats), this is still an area that requires much more research. While there have been no fatal overdoses on marijuana, deaths connected to using synthetic cannabinoids for recreational purposes have tripled between 2014 and 2015, and still appear to increase.

Rather than taking synthetic cannabinoids, it’s much safer to grow your own cannabis. While it’s important to check that growing cannabis is legal in your country, this is the only way to be completely certain of what it is that you’re partaking in.

Adam Parsons
Adam Parsons
Professional cannabis journalist, copywriter, and author Adam Parsons is a long-time staff member of Zamnesia. Tasked with covering a wide range of topics from CBD to psychedelics and everything in between, Adam creates blog posts, guides, and explores an ever-growing range of products.
We are not making medical claims. This article has been written for informational purposes only, and is based on research published by other externals sources.

External Resources:
  1. Adverse Effects of Synthetic Cannabinoids: Management of Acute Toxicity and Withdrawal -
  2. Synthetic version of CBD treats seizures in rats -- ScienceDaily -
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