Synthetic Marijuana Effects & Warning Signs

Synthetic marijuana, which is also commonly referred to as K2 or Spice, is a blend of natural plant material and artificial psychoactive substances. There are some similarities between synthetic and natural marijuana, but many experts have noted that the synthetic version can have a much more powerful impact and can pose greater risks to those who abuse it.

Understanding Synthetic Marijuana

Learn about synthetic marijuana and substance abuse

In most cases, synthetic marijuana is ingested by smoking it and it is occasionally it is brewed into a tea.

Synthetic marijuana interacts with the same parts of the brain that are impacted by the active ingredient in natural marijuana. However, some versions of synthetic marijuana activate many more of these receptors and maintain this activation for a longer period of time. Thus, the effects of synthetic marijuana can be significantly greater, can last longer, and can inflict more damage than what usually results from the abuse of natural marijuana.

Though synthetic marijuana is now known to be dangerous, it was initially marketed as a harmless, all-natural herbal blend that was a safe and legal alternative to natural marijuana. While these substances do contain some plant-based materials, their psychoactive properties result from the variety of synthetic chemicals that are added to the natural substances, of which are not safe for human consumption because of their effects. Today, many of these chemicals and additives are banned by law because they can be extremely harmful when ingested.

The amount, potency, and quality of the chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana can vary widely. Synthetic marijuana can even be different in two packages of what appears to be the same substance. Legal loopholes, lax production standards, and unsavory marketing practices make it extremely difficult for users to know what chemicals they are ingesting, of which only adds to the dangers associated with this toxic substance.

Fortunately, there are treatment options available that can help those who abuse synthetic marijuana.


Synthetic marijuana abuse statistics

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, or NIDA, synthetic marijuana is second only to actual marijuana on the list of drugs that are commonly abused by young adults.

In 2010, the Drug Abuse Warning Network, or DAWN, documented 11,406 emergency room visits that were directly related to the abuse of synthetic marijuana. Seventy-five percent of these visits involved patients under the age of 29. DAWN also reports that about 80 percent of ER visits for problems related to synthetic marijuana involve male patients.

From 2011 to 2014, poison control centers associated with the American Association of Poison Control Centers, or AAPCC, averaged slightly more than 4,600 annual calls related to the abuse of synthetic marijuana. In only the first four months of 2015, the AAPCC reports that 2,413 such calls have been received.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for synthetic marijuana abuse

A person’s risk for abusing synthetic marijuana may be influenced by several internal and external factors. In most cases, it is a combination of genetics, environment, and other risk factors that can ultimately lead a person into the abuse of substances. Consider the following explanations:

Genetic: One of the strongest predictors that a person will struggle with substance abuse or addiction is family history. People whose parents and/or siblings have engaged in substance abuse, developed an addiction, or struggled with mental illness are at increased risk for having a problem with synthetic marijuana or another drug.

Researchers associated with NIDA have identified a number of specific genes and genetic networks that show evidence of influencing person’s vulnerability for developing a substance use disorder.

Environmental: Family history of drug abuse, violence, and/or mental illness can also be an environmental contributor to the development of a problem related to substance abuse.  Children who grow up in chaotic households with inadequate parental supervision are at increased risk for substance abuse later in life, as are those who view or experience abuse, neglect, assault, and other forms of trauma.

Outside of the house, living in an area where drugs are easily accessible and associating with peers who engage in substance abuse can also lead to problems with substance abuse.

Risk Factors: 

  • Gender (Synthetic marijuana abuse is significantly more common among men than among women)
  • Inadequate parental supervision during one’s childhood
  • Low self-esteem
  • Impulse-control problems
  • Poverty
  • Social isolation
  • Inadequate stress management skills
  • Family history of mental health illness or substance abuse
  • Personal history of trauma, mental illness, or prior substance abuse

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of synthetic marijuana abuse

Synthetic marijuana abuse may reveal itself via myriad signs and symptoms, including many of the following:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Acting deceptively regarding one’s whereabouts, actions, and acquaintances
  • Unexplained absences from work or other responsibilities
  • Unexplained drop in performance at work
  • Possession of drug paraphernalia
  • Acting in a reckless or otherwise risky manner
  • Continuing to abuse substances even after experiencing problems as a result
  • Using synthetic marijuana in response to stress or to celebrate successes

Physical symptoms:

  • Poor hygiene
  • Watery and/or bloodshot eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Heart palpitations
  • Increase in blood pressure
  • Headaches
  • Sleepiness
  • Nausea

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Trouble staying focused
  • Impaired problem-solving capabilities

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Depression
  • Anhedonia

Co-Occurring Disorders

Synthetic marijuana abuse and co-occurring disorders

The abuse of synthetic marijuana may be contributing factor to the development of a mental health problem. The following are among the co-occurring disorders that may be experienced by an individual who is engaging in synthetic marijuana abuse:

  • Anorexia
  • Agoraphobia
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Bulimia
  • Learning disorders
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Persistent depressive disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • General anxiety disorder
  • Social phobia
  • Specific phobia


Effects of synthetic marijuana abuse

The following are among the many ways that synthetic marijuana abuse can negatively impact a person’s efforts to live a productive and satisfying life:

  • Failures at work
  • Job loss
  • Strained or destroyed personal relationships
  • Social ostracization
  • Financial problems
  • Legal problems
  • Damage to heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys
  • Brain damage
  • Onset of mental health condition symptoms
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Death

Withdrawl & Overdose

Effects of synthetic marijuana withdrawal and overdose

Effects of synthetic marijuana withdrawal: Though the severity and duration of withdrawal symptoms will vary, the following are common among individuals who are experiencing withdrawal after abusing synthetic marijuana:

  • Cravings
  • Loss of appetite
  • Heavy perspiration
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Agitation
  • Suicidal thoughts

Effects of synthetic marijuana overdose: The significant variance in the composition of synthetic marijuana means that overdose symptoms can vary widely. The following are among the common signs that indicate that a person has ingested an unsafe amount of synthetic marijuana:

  • Breathing problems
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Psychosis
  • Hallucinations and delusions
  • Severe agitation
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Seizure
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