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What Is ‘Synthetic Marijuana’ and How Is It Made?

December 4, 2014

Rumors spread that it was legal and that it would mimic the effects of real cannabis. But when more and more people began suffering side effects (which in some cases led to death), concerns arose over synthetic cannabis, a designer drug made for those who prefer health risks to legal risks – or for those blind to the risks altogether.

What is Synthetic Cannabis?

What is synthetic weed

Not to be confused with legal synthetic THC like Marinol, this cannabis doppelganger is anything but FDA-approved. Synthetic cannabis (also called synthetic cannabinds, SCs, or synncanns) hides under many monikers like K2 and Spice, as well as a label which reads “Not for human consumption.” New varieties are introduced with shuffled ingredients as a way of maintaining their legality. These products would sit inconspicuously on the shelves of smoke shops and gas stations, and of course the internet offered an even broader selection of products.

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A synthetic cannabinoid is not a cannabis product, but a chemical analog that binds to the same system of receptors. THC, the primary psychoactive chemical in herbal cannabis, latches to CB1 receptors in the brain to produce a euphoric high, and synthetic cannabinoids also bind here, but with a much higher affinity.

Synthetic cannabinoids can be 2 to 100 times more potent than THC and induce severe side effects like vomiting, chest pain, increased heart rate, vision blackouts, headaches, kidney damage, agitation, high blood pressure, and psychosis. Significant withdrawal symptoms have also been reported.

John William Huffman, a Harvard graduate and organic chemistry professor at Clemson University, began synthesizing hundreds of novel cannabinoids in the mid-1980s for medical research purposes using funding from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). They were intended as tools for understanding cannabinoid mechanisms, but in 2008 following the publication of his work, one cannabinoid called JWH-018 appeared thousands of miles away in a German forensic lab. They named it “Spice” and disseminated it to curious, experimentally-inclined customers.

Simple to manufacture with a remarkably short turnaround time, it didn’t take long for clandestine drug manufacturers to jump on the opportunity and open the market floodgates. Huffman’s response: “Someone opened Pandora’s box.”

How to Make Synthetic Cannabinoid Blends

How is synthetic cannabis made?

Synthetic cannabinoids are typically shipped overseas from China to manufacturers who prepare the blends using high-proof alcohol or acetone solvents. It’s basically a reverse-extraction: the synthetic molecules are dissolved in a solvent and introduced to its plantlike host material through a soaking or spraying process.

Much can go wrong in the production process. A poorly mixed solution or an uneven spray job can result in chemical “hot spots,” or dangerously potent areas of the batch. The unlucky customer who happens to buy a bag with this concentrated chemical hot spot is likely to experience some pretty terrible side effects.

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You can use your imagination to come up with tons of other production errors, especially in the hands of unexperienced or careless manufacturers. Is your novel cannabinoid source reliable? Is your potency analysis accurate? Is it actually the cannabinoid you think it is?

While the DEA chases down large-scale operations, small operations sell their questionable products under established “brand” names. Without a system of regulation, it’s anyone’s guess how a product was made, what ingredients went into it, and what potency each batch exhibits.

All of these uncertainties are contributors to the dangerous side effects and even deaths from synthetic cannabis. So why are people turning to it despite its dangers?

Simple. People typically choose synthetic cannabis over real cannabis for the following reasons:

  • Cannabis is illegal in their state
  • Synthetic cannabinoids don’t turn up on a urine analysis

Unfortunately, these short-sighted “advantages” aren’t worth the risk of death or serious side effects that can compromise your health. The success of these life-threatening products rides the wave of cannabis prohibition. It’s yet another reason to keep fighting the good fight for legalization.

  • Kim k

    Thank you LEAFLY for getting the word out! Spice is HIGHLY addictive like crack but marketed (underground) to people who smoke marijuana getting them addicted quickly, Thus the nickname “sprack”. It is NOTHING like weed. When an addict trys to stop they are greeted with nausea, vomiting, insomnia, major irritably and feeling very horrible over all. The chemists have put a component of heroin in there to make you feel so sick you will run for more just for relief! Weed can’t help at this point because Synthetic weed (spice) wraps around your receptors OVER 300 times tighter than weed. In other words weed does nothing for you anymore, not wax, oil or moonrocks will help for days or weeks and some say cannabis never effected them the same again. I tried it because I needed to test clean for a job while hoping to still get the relief my symptoms that I used medical marijuana for. I smoked spice for a year. I had never been addicted to anything before that…..OK, coffee lol. Withdrawal was horrible I had seizures lost 22lbs. I’ve been clean for 2 years. Nothing but pure flower for me! I know 5 people (who i am no longer around) who are still smoking and they have physically changed, emotionally changed and spend ALOT of money as a spice high averages 15-25 min they smoke more often. They look like spice zombies. Please EDUCATE the youth and people you love.

    • Shelly Mello Boss

      Omg this is some terrible stuff its pulling my guy and i apart i didn’t understand it until I read this article and comments sometimes I’ll give him money to get his fix NOT NO MORE !!! I love him I refuse to contribute to his death!!

      • Shawn Hughes

        Tell him straight out to get off it you will help, or you will leave, dont drop hints, or use riddles or other womanly ways. be direct. he will stop, if he doesnt it dont mean he dont love you, its a powerful addiction, it makes you use it

  • Goldie

    Smoke the real deal

  • NetG

    I used this stuff for 5 years no problems. When jwh18 and 75 was made illegal they switched to an2201… a few months later my kidneys shut down. I was lucky…I was found, unconscious, convulsing on the floor covered in mucus and blood. I would be dead had it not been for my dogs that got someone’s attention and leading to me being found. I was unconscious in the icu for 7 days. I was on dialysis for 4 months, no urine output. My kidneys have been working fine after those 4 months. Many have died from this stuff from one hit, most end up with kidney failure…the lucky ones have their kidneys come back on after many months of $30,000 a month (or more) of dialysis.

    • Tina Pihota

      My son died from what you are talking about at least I believe that is what killed him he smoked it for about 4-5 months everyday and then one day he became dehydrated and died…Can I ask what signs you had of kidney failure?

      • NetG

        I’m so sorry for your loss. I was very lucky to have been found due to my dogs or I wouldn’t be here. I didn’t really notice anything though. I did remeber, over a year later, that I had woken up and was extremely dizzy, I remember falling once, but I went back to bed and the next memory is being in the icu a week later. Looking back I was starting to retain fluid, my face and body were swollen and holding my breath was difficult due to that as well. The kidneys do ALOT. Primarily they get rid of the fluid you drink. They also remove wastes like urea and creatinine and they also get rid if phosphorus and potassium; too much potassium can stop the heart. It was probably the fluid build from the kidneys shutting down up that made me pass out and have seizures. If it weren’t for my dogs no one would have found me. The fluid build up is the only thing I noticed but it was gradual at first. I was also drinking beer heavily so that could have caused my longer term behavior changes. The kidney failure happened suddenly so mine may have failed only a day or two before I began seizing. That’s the scary thing about this stuff, I’ve seen stories this year in my local news of kids dying from a single use. There have been different formulas used over the years and the stuff out now is what’s killing people. When this stuff first came out it wasn’t doing this. I say that only because I ignored the first news stories about kidney failure because I had used the previous stuff for so long with no problems. You can’t get the other formulations so the lethal one is all that’s sold. Anyone that’s used safely in the past needs to stop asap because it’s not the same stuff and anyone tempted to try this better not because it doesn’t take months or years of use, sometimes one hit can do you in.

      • Frantic

        Im also sorry for your loss . I can relate in the way we lost my little sister she was only 16 … I hope you can find some peace

  • Nathan Kedis

    He who controls the spice, controls the Universe!!!!!

  • gareththomasnz

    legalization is pure BS because more harmful drugs will be monetized instead. Get off the drugs fools

    • Paul Smith

      Is it pure BS that since legalization of adult-use recreational cannabis the number of opioid-related overdoses have drastically fallen in those same rec states? The answer is it’s not pure BS. Do your own research instead of believing propaganda.

  • Gene Rodriguez

    After hurricane Maria slammed PR my mom needed help. I left Chicago for PR. After a week of no electricity I started getting very homesick and depressed. So I started walking around and ran into a child hood friend that was smoking that stuff. Im a lifelong pothead and had tried the K4 back in 2008. So I asked for just one toke. I was warned not to toke it like a joint but I figured what’s one toke gonna do. I really wish I had listened. Within 5 minutes I passed out and my body and mind was hijacked by what felt was the beast. Scary demonic voices in my head saying it’s all over THIS IS DEATH, THIS IS DEATH, THIS IS HELL and the Worst pain of my life lingering throughout my body.The pain was very intense. I was literally screaming from the mental and physical pain.The guys thought I was dead. They poored water on me and I started to snap out of it but it still took a few minutes to regain memory. I had forgotten who everyone around me was. Pure torture……..

  • Gene Rodriguez

    Legalize pot, it’s so much safer

  • Darrell

    I began using synthetic weed in the halfway house in 2011. I noticed one day some guys in the house smoking something resembling a joint, but no marijuana smell!!! I asked them, what is that? They said it’s fake weed. It came in a little blue envelope labeled Cloud 9, it had a little cartoon smiley face with its tongue stuck out. I said, aren’t you afraid of getting caught smoking that right in front of the house? They said, No, it doesn’t show up on drug tests and few people know what it is. What’s it like? I asked. It’s just like weed they said, offering the little joint to me. Delighted, I took a couple small puffs. A few minutes later, Ahhhh….. A pleasant not to strong but familiar feeling washed over me. I was hooked. Cloud 9 was good for beginners, not too strong. That soon gave way to more potent blends like, 100% Pure Evil, Head Trip. The AM-HI-CO blend called, Ice Bud Super Cold, was the first to knock me unconcious in one hit. I could feel it pulling me down powerfully. My view of the world shrank to a pinpoint and then a few seconds later darkness. It scared me but after coming too an hour later I took the plunge again. Eventually that became the standard for me, the knockout stuff was the best!! At that time AM 2201 was the cannabinoid being used alot. Personally, this was the strongest one I had tried and I tried many. I also thought it had the least of bad side affects. AM2201 was my Fave. Tolerance builds quickly with cannabinoids, but if you had a gram of pure 2201 you were going bye bye for a while. Even seasoned users were obliterated with this one. Yes, I even ordered the stuff to make my own several times. I continued using until 2015. Am-2201 gave way to Ur 144. Then that was banned and FuBinaca appeared. One of the last chems smelled like burnt plastic and had some unpleasant side effects, Never figured out what it was called. And then the cops closed down all the shops in town and suddenly the ban was complete. 4 hard years of use. I smoked the strongest chems in there purest forms. No kidney problems, no health problems during or after. Kicking was somewhat excruciating. What I remember most was the nausea. Pretty bad withdrawls, but alcohol was worse. Now when I smoke real weed for too long I get a lesser version of these withdrawls. I don’t remember this happening before my synthetic addiction. I also did the bath salt (active ingredient MDPV) I thought that was worse than the fake weed IMHO, but they can both be diabolical. I enjoyed the fake weed high generally although I had a few cannabinoids that didn’t agree with me. The bath salt was just a curse. After the first day the high sucker but still couldn’t stop. Well I hope it was an enjoyable read for some one. DJ

    • Jason Cravens

      Yeah man. That was, for sure, an enjoyable read. Right on.