Last updated: October 19, 2020
Contrary to the lies printed on the packaging and on manufacturer websites, synthetic marijuana is not “natural” and does not offer a legal high. Synthetic marijuana is created (usually in China) by spraying chemicals on dried plant material like grass clippings. The chemicals have a psychoactive effect on the brain, which may have effects like marijuana or may have much worse effects. Synthetic marijuana is designed to interact with the same receptors in the brain as marijuana but it can be 100 times more powerful, producing wildly different effects.
It is sold with brand names like Spice, K2, Joker, Black Mamba, Kush and literally hundreds of other names. But brand names and flashy packaging do not protect the user from the negative effects. Authorities have made it illegal to sell, buy or possess many of these chemicals, but manufacturers sidestep these laws by changing the chemical formula slightly. There are now over 150 different versions of synthetic marijuana. Manufacturers may change the mixture of chemicals they are using—even from one batch to the next. The truth is that a user never knows exactly what they are taking or how taking the chemicals will turn out.
This makes the effects of smoking even harder to predict. Some of the most common effects of synthetic marijuana are severe paranoia, delusions and hallucinations. Use of these drugs may also lead to vomiting, seizures and even death. Pot smokers report experiencing a slightly disturbing increased heart rate after smoking a joint a bit too fast, there are signs that it could be even more extreme when using synthetic marijuana. There are numerous reports of people having heart attacks and strokes – and even dying – after taking the drug. Cases have also been reported of kidney and liver damage and severe psychosis. The delusions caused by synthetic marijuana have led users to jump through glass windows, perch at the edge of rooftops, etc.
Synthetic marijuana has its origins in scientific research. In the mid-90s, a chemist named John Huffman and his colleagues at Clemson University were studying the impact of THC (the psychoactive ingredient of marijuana). The work involved creating synthetic compounds that acted in a similar way, which led to the synthesis of artificial cannabinoids. Eventually, his research found its way into the hands of people who decided to try taking the compounds he created. A German blogger sent Professor Huffman a news article describing a new drug one man had smoked. “I thought it was sort of hilarious at the time,” he said. “Then I started hearing about some of the bad results, and I thought, ‘Hmm, I guess someone opened Pandora’s box.’”
“I was experimenting for good,” he told the Sunday Times, in a separate interview. “Could I have known? No. Marijuana has been around for hundreds of years, its effects are well known and you cannot kill yourself with it, [but] you can kill yourself with the synthetics.”
Matthew Nuttall, an ex-spice addict from Manchester, told Britain’s Metro newspaper: “You just feel brain dead half the time. They say people look like zombies, and that’s how it feels.
“The first time, I can’t even explain what it was like. It just blew my head off. I thought ‘never again.’ It’s just such a heavy high. It’s so intense,” he continued. “’The first high lasted about one hour, but it really felt a lot longer. It’s like you’re there but you can’t communicate. You’re alive in there, but you can’t see it on the outside. You just feel braindead.”
In July of last year over 30 people were hospitalized in New York City due to synthetic marijuana—primarily homeless people. Addicts would congregate under an elevated train in Brooklyn and smoke openly. Onlookers called police when the drug users look more affected than usual. People said it was seeing a sea of zombies.
A drug that at its best turns you into a zombie and at its worst will kill you. What, again, is the appeal?