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Synthetic Weed Addiction: Is Synthetic Marijuana Addictive?

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Table of Contents

Synthetic marijuana goes by many names: fake pot, potpourri, legal weed, legal bud, herbal smoke, fake weed, Spice, and K2. But what is synthetic marijuana? Over the last few years, synthetic marijuana abuse has emerged as one of the most popular drug trends. Synthetic marijuana is often viewed as an alternative to natural cannabis. Users are drawn to it for countless reasons: they may be trying to evade drug tests, enjoy a legal high, or they may simply prefer the effects of synthetic cannabis. Unfortunately, synthetic marijuana is a dangerous drug of abuse. In many cases, it is more dangerous than natural marijuana. When people develop addictions to synthetic marijuana, they expose themselves to a wide range of severe consequences that can make it difficult for them to function in their everyday lives. In some cases, they may even suffer life threatening health problems from abusing synthetic cannabis.

What is Synthetic Marijuana?

Synthetic marijuana products entered the market in 2002. They were originally developed by scientists so that researchers could better understand how marijuana affects the brain. The human brain naturally contains a “cannabinoid system” that is activated when users consume the cannabinoids present in cannabis. Scientists developed artificial cannabinoids so that they could improve their understanding of how the cannabinoid system works. However, it was soon discovered that a huge market existed for these synthetic cannabinoids. This market includes marijuana users who are looking for an alternative, as well as people who would never use marijuana.

In fact, “synthetic marijuana” is a term that does not refer to a single drug. It is an umbrella term that refers to a wide range of recreational drug products, all of which have differing characteristics. It is estimated that hundreds of synthetic cannabinoids are sold on the market, and countless more are being developed as you read this.

But what is fake weed? Originally, these “marijuana alternatives” were designed to stimulate the cannabinoid system the same way that actual cannabis does. These lab-produced artificial products were originally intended to have an almost identical chemical structure as natural cannabis. However, the fact that there are minute chemical differences between synthetic marijuana and natural cannabis means that they are technically different drugs.

For distributors, selling synthetic marijuana has a number of advantages. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies natural marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning that it is illegal at the federal level. While some states have passed legislation legalizing marijuana consumption on the state level, distributing and purchasing marijuana remains illegal and dangerous throughout the majority of the United States. Because synthetic marijuana products are not chemically identical to natural cannabis, however, they are not regulated in the same way. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies synthetic marijuana products as “new psychoactive substances” (NPS), which means these mind-altering substances are unregulated despite often producing many of the same effects as illegal drugs. In many cases, even in areas where marijuana is illegal, everyday smoke shops sell synthetic marijuana quite openly. They often market them as “herbal smoke blends,” since explicitly advertising them as marijuana alternatives can pose legal risks.

Why do so many synthetic marijuana products exist? Ultimately, it is because the developers of these drugs are racing against regulation. It may take some time, but most synthetic marijuana products eventually get regulated and become illegal. For this reason, developers are constantly working to develop new ones. Each time a synthetic marijuana product is taken off the shelf, a new one takes its place. It takes a long time for an individual substance to be regulated, and at this point synthetic marijuana products are being developed at such a rapid pace that there is little chance that this type of product will stop being sold any time soon.

What is Spice? What is K2?

In the race against regulation, countless marijuana products have been developed. Spice and K2 are brand names that were used for very early synthetic cannabinoid products. This early series of synthetic marijuana products, which is known as the JWH series, is actually the most well-researched. These compounds have now been banned and cannot legally be sold in stores. Nonetheless, “Spice” and “K2” are still sometimes used as generic terms that refer to any and all synthetic marijuana products.

When Spice and K2 were banned, a variety of new synthetic marijuana products were developed to take their place. These include XR-11, AB-PINACA, and AB-FUBINCACA. Common brand names available on the market today include:

  • Arizona
  • Black Mamba
  • Bombay Blue
  • Genie
  • Zohai
  • Banana Cream Nuke
  • Krypton
  • Lava Red

It is important to recognize that sometimes synthetic marijuana is misleadingly labeled. In many cases, synthetic marijuana isn’t even advertised as a drug. It may simply be advertised as an herbal smoking blend, natural herbs, or herbal incense. Some drug distributors also claim to sell natural marijuana but in fact distribute synthetic marijuana products to unwitting consumers. They may sell joints or e-cigarette liquid that are in fact derived from synthetic marijuana. It is thus very easy for a young person to accidentally use synthetic marijuana.

Dangers of Synthetic Marijuana

What makes synthetic marijuana so dangerous? Hearing the name, most people are likely to assume that synthetic cannabis is no different from natural cannabis except in its point of origin. At one point in time, that might have been somewhat true. In actual fact, however, the race against regulation has caused synthetic marijuana products to become very different from marijuana. Each time a synthetic marijuana product becomes illegal and a new one is developed, the new product needs to be chemically different from the last. As a result, the synthetic marijuana products of today, despite the name, have gradually evolved into a set of products that are vastly different from their original source of inspiration.

Because the chemical makeup of synthetic marijuana products on the market is constantly changing, it is difficult to state with accuracy what the effects and dangers of an individual product will be. Very little research has been conducted to determine the effects of synthetic cannabinoids on the human brain in general. However, researchers have found that many synthetic marijuana products bind to cannabinoid receptors more strongly than natural marijuana does. As a result, synthetic marijuana products can often produce dangerous and unpredictable effects.

Effects of Synthetic Marijuana

Many of the effects of synthetic marijuana overlap with the effects of natural cannabis. The most common physical and cognitive effects of synthetic marijuana include:

  • Relaxation
  • Elevated mood
  • Altered perception (altered awareness of surrounding objects and circumstances)
  • Symptoms of psychosis (delusions or confused and disordered thinking)
  • A sense of detachment from reality

While natural marijuana can produce negative symptoms, including psychosis, synthetic marijuana is far more likely to produce these effects. This is especially true when a specific synthetic marijuana product has not been tested or researched. Common symptoms of synthetic marijuana-induced psychosis include:

  • Confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • Extreme anxiety
  • Dissociation
  • Hallucinations (sensations and images that appear real even though they are not)
  • Paranoia (an extreme and unreasonable distrust of other people)

Why Do People Use Synthetic Marijuana?

Young people are increasingly drawn to synthetic marijuana because, due to a legal loophole, it is considered a legal drug. The rates of synthetic marijuana abuse are skyrocketing in particular for people who are under the age of 18. For many minors, synthetic marijuana can be purchased more easily than cigarettes or alcohol. It is often sold in benign packaging and marketed as “herbal smoke blends,” often in the same section of a store as incense and other legal smoke products. Ease of access is part of what makes synthetic marijuana so appealing.

Because it is illegal and criminalized in much of the country, many young adults are reluctant to purchase and consume marijuana. For individuals who are already experiencing criminal consequences due to their drug use, using marijuana might be out of the question. Drug tests by parents or case workers can make it impossible for a person to use marijuana and other conventional recreational drugs. Synthetic marijuana is often seen as a legal alternative to marijuana. Young people often purchase synthetic weed as a way of avoiding the negative social consequences they may suffer if they were to use marijuana.

As a legal drug, synthetic marijuana is often perceived as inherently safer. Young people are likely to believe that if a drug has risks associated with it, it will be regulated and illegal. This misconception fails to take into account how rapidly new synthetic marijuana products are being produced, and how the United States government is in fact trying and failing to regulate them. In point of fact, many legal drugs are just as dangerous as illegal drugs, if not more so. Prescription opioid painkillers, alcohol, and cigarettes for instance, are anything but illicit street drugs. These drugs are responsible for the majority of substance-related deaths in the United States. However, the legal status of synthetic marijuana continues to convince young people that these drugs are safe to use.

Is Synthetic Marijuana Addictive?

Before answering the question of whether synthetic marijuana is addictive or not, it is important to address how addictive natural marijuana is. Many people are under the impression that marijuana is a non-addictive recreational drug. Compared to heroin, cigarettes, and alcohol, it is true that marijuana produces significantly less intense physical dependence. The effects of marijuana are generally far more mild than most addictive drugs, and the associated withdrawal effects of marijuana are also less intense. However, natural marijuana does lead to a degree of physical dependence. When people stop taking marijuana, they are likely to experience strong cravings, irritability, feelings of depression, and anxiety. Many people also suffer from decreased cognitive performance.

Marijuana is also psychologically addictive, and this is the real problem. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, approximately 30% of people who use marijuana have some degree of a marijuana use disorder. Even though marijuana abuse does not lead to extreme physical dependence, many people discover that they are unable to control their own marijuana consumption. They may become psychologically dependent on it and find it difficult to function without it. In many cases, individuals are helpless to control their marijuana consumption despite repeated negative consequences.

In fact, one of the many reasons that people turn to synthetic marijuana is that they believe it can help them “quit” natural marijuana. Synthetic marijuana, however, also has a high potential for addiction. Abusing synthetic marijuana is actually more likely to lead to physical dependence than natural marijuana, because the synthetic cannabinoids present in synthetic pot bind more tightly to receptors in users’ brains. This not only results in stronger effects, but it can lead to more severe and often unpredictable withdrawal symptoms.

Fake Weed Withdrawal

It may be fake weed, but the withdrawal effects are anything but fake! Symptoms of synthetic weed withdrawal can vary considerably, depending on the specific chemical makeup of the product in question. The withdrawal symptoms can be quite mild, but they can also be very severe. Sometimes severe withdrawal symptoms occur after using fake weed just one time! The symptoms of fake marijuana withdrawal include:

  • Severe anxiety
  • Headache
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Confusion, memory loss, and other cognitive problems
  • Severe cravings

How Does Synthetic Marijuana Addiction Happen?

Like marijuana, synthetic marijuana is designed to produce a “high.” For users, this high is generally characterized by euphoria, relaxation, and altered sensory perceptions. While many synthetic marijuana products reportedly produce less euphoria than natural marijuana, and some even produce uncomfortable and painful symptoms, it nonetheless produces a “high.” Because synthetic cannabinoids generally bind more strongly to receptors in the brain, synthetic marijuana abuse often results in a much stronger high than natural marijuana products.

What makes this high addictive, aside from the pleasure associated with it? Ultimately, the source of the high from synthetic marijuana is a neurotransmitter known as dopamine. When cannabinoid receptors are activated, the brain releases high quantities of dopamine. Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter that is responsible for reinforcing behaviors. It is released when people play sports, accomplish goals, or have sex. When people use recreational drugs like synthetic marijuana, their brains release significantly more dopamine than any of these healthy activities. Because dopamine plays such an important role in the brain’s motivation and decision making centers, abusing synthetic marijuana can “hijack” the brain, making people more likely to consume synthetic marijuana.

Over time, the brain and body actually adapt to the effects of synthetic marijuana. This phenomenon is known as “tolerance,” and it means that taking the same dose will produce less intense effects. As a result, individuals who are seeking a high must take synthetic marijuana more frequently or take it at higher doses. Over time, tolerance will inevitably catch up to the increased dosage. The result is a vicious cycle, wherein users are constantly racing to keep ahead of their tolerance.

As people develop increasingly high tolerance for synthetic marijuana, they also develop a physical dependence. When people have a physical dependence on synthetic marijuana, they are likely to experience painful withdrawal symptoms when they stop using it or decrease their dosage. Synthetic marijuana withdrawal, like marijuana withdrawal, can make it difficult to function in everyday life. As a result, individuals with a physical tolerance to synthetic marijuana will often work hard to ensure they always have access to the drug.

Ultimately, however, it is important to understand that physical dependence is not the same as addiction. While physical dependence causes withdrawal and physical cravings, individuals with synthetic marijuana addiction may experience cravings and obsessive thoughts even after withdrawing and detoxing from the drug. Addiction is a mental health condition that is psychological in nature. Because addiction is a separate condition that often lasts far longer than physical dependence, it is essential for individuals with a synthetic marijuana addiction — or any addiction — to get the help they need for their underlying substance use disorder.

Factors That Increase the Likelihood of Addiction

Why do some people become addicted to synthetic marijuana? It is common for people to talk about an “addictive personality” when the subject of addiction comes up. Ultimately, there are a wide range of factors that are responsible for addiction, and the development of a synthetic marijuana addiction can rarely be attributed to one single cause. However, it is possible to identify qualities that make certain people more predisposed toward synthetic marijuana addiction. Genetics and environmental factors both play important roles. The following are associated with a higher likelihood of developing a synthetic marijuana addiction:

  • Having a family history of substance abuse
  • Having a personal history of abusing or being addicted to other drugs, including alcohol and natural marijuana
  • Suffering from a mental health disorder, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Early exposure to drugs and alcohol
  • Having a weak social support system

Signs of Synthetic Marijuana Addiction

As with natural marijuana, abusing synthetic marijuana can lead to addiction. Individuals are especially prone to developing a synthetic marijuana addiction if they have a history of substance abuse or if their family has a history of substance abuse. Suffering from mental illness also makes people predisposed to developing addictions.

Synthetic marijuana addiction is poorly understood because the drug is so new. While it is often stronger and more unpredictable than natural marijuana, it is helpful to look at the characteristics of marijuana addiction to understand how synthetic marijuana addiction affects people. Marijuana addiction, which is known by medical professionals as marijuana use disorder, is diagnosed using a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The DSM-5 lists 11 symptoms that characterize marijuana use disorder. Suffering from at least 2 of the conditions indicates a mild addiction, with more symptoms representing a more severe addiction. Like marijuana use disorder, it can be surmised that synthetic marijuana addiction is also a spectrum condition.

The eleven symptoms of a synthetic marijuana addiction include:

  • Using synthetic marijuana even when it is leading to significant social or relationship problems
  • Continuing to us synthetic marijuana despite recognizing a physical or psychological problem related to marijuana
  • Regularly experiencing strong cravings for synthetic marijuana
  • Developing a tolerance for synthetic marijuana’s effects and needing more of it to achieve these effects
  • Suffering from withdrawal symptoms when synthetic marijuana is not around
  • Giving up on activities that were once enjoyable because using synthetic marijuana seems preferable
  • Using synthetic marijuana in larger amounts or over a longer period than originally intended
  • Using synthetic marijuana in situations that could be dangerous, such as smoking synthetic marijuana while driving
  • Using synthetic marijuana so often, or using so much of it, that it is difficult to get important tasks completed
  • Spending a great deal of time seeking out synthetic marijuana, getting high, and recovering from the effects
  • Thinking about or trying to cut back or stop synthetic marijuana use, but failing repeatedly

Can Synthetic Marijuana be Detected on Drug Tests?

One of the primary reasons people turn to synthetic marijuana is that it is very difficult for it to be detected on drug tests. People who are drug tested by their employers, parole officers, parents, or school administrators often abuse synthetic marijuana to evade these tests. In many cases, these recreational drug users would prefer to use another drug, such as natural marijuana, but the consequences of being detected are too severe. Synthetic marijuana is not only legal, but people can abuse it without fear of suffering consequences at work or school — or at least the consequences of being discovered.

In theory, drug tests can be developed that detect synthetic marijuana products. However, the difficulty lies in the fact that new synthetic marijuana products are being developed so rapidly. This means that even if a test is developed to detect one synthetic marijuana product, it is likely that it will not detect other ones. Ultimately, it makes little sense to even develop such a test, given the fact that products are banned so quickly and replaced by new ones.

It is important for parents and other figures of authority to recognize that standard marijuana tests cannot detect the presence of synthetic cannabinoids. Unfortunately, many young people do not get the help they need because they “pass” the drug tests they parents give them. If a parent administers a test and their child tests negative for marijuana, it is important that they recognize that this does not mean their child is entirely drug-free.

Certain commercially available tests are available that specifically detect certain synthetic marijuana products. These include immunoassay screening methods (EMIT), though liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry is the most frequently used method for confirmation and quantitation. EMIT kits for detecting synthetic marijuana can be purchased by consumers, though these testing kits are often less widely available than standard marijuana tests. They also tend to be more expensive and require processing in a lab. It is also important to note that because these tests cannot detect all synthetic marijuana products, it is still possible for a person to test negative while abusing them.

Long Term Consequences of Synthetic Marijuana Abuse

Many young people begin using synthetic marijuana because they are convinced that synthetic marijuana, by virtue of being a legal drug, must be safe. Since it is difficult to detect synthetic marijuana on common drug tests, they may see it as a way to avoid consequences at school or work. However, the short term effects of synthetic marijuana abuse can lead to unpredictable mood changes, cognitive problems, and even dangerous physical ailments. Over the long term, synthetic marijuana abuse can lead to addiction, which comes with even more severe consequences.

When young people become addicted to synthetic marijuana, they are likely to prioritize their drug use above all else. It is common for young people with substance use disorders to disengage from hobbies and activities that they once took pleasure in. They may stop spending time with friends and family members, choosing instead to isolate so that they can get high. Over time, their performance at school or work can begin to suffer considerably. For some, this results in consequences such as failing out of school or getting fired from work. Synthetic marijuana abuse, even if it goes undetected, can severely diminish a person’s quality of life.

Abusing cannabinoids can also lead to permanent changes in the brain on the neurological level. This is especially the case for adolescents and college students who abuse synthetic marijuana before their brains have fully developed. Individuals exposed to cannabinoids during adolescence tend to exhibit problems with learning and memory tasks later in life. In fact, exposure to cannabinoids during adolescence leads to permanent structural and functional changes in the hippocampus. The result is a lasting reduction in a person’s ability to engage in important executive functions, including memory, learning, and impulse control. Most of these studies are based on natural marijuana. It is also important to recognize that the long term effects of synthetic marijuana on the brain are not well-researched, and they may be far more severe.

Synthetic Marijuana and Polysubstance Abuse

Studies in rats have shown that exposure to cannabinoids alters the reward system of the mammalian brain. These studies show that rats who consume cannabinoids are more likely to self-administer other drugs, such as heroin, when given the opportunity. Individuals using synthetic cannabinoids are far more likely to abuse alcohol and other recreational drugs. For most young people, synthetic marijuana is often abused on a temporary basis when they are trying to avoid having their substance abuse detected on a drug test. It is important to recognize that if a person is abusing synthetic marijuana, there is a high likelihood that they are abusing — or were abusing — other substances as well.

In some cases, synthetic marijuana functions as a gateway drug. Because it is legal and widely available, many adolescents purchase and consume synthetic marijuana under the misconception that it is perfectly safe. In some cases, they may believe that this “herbal smoke mix” isn’t even a drug at all. Synthetic marijuana often has a strong appeal to young people who would normally never consume an illicit or illegal “street drug.” However, once a pattern of abuse an addiction has set in, these very same young people may eventually decide to turn to other substances, including natural marijuana, alcohol, and prescription opioids.

Abusing multiple substances is known as polysubstance abuse. Polysubstance abuse brings risks beyond those of mere synthetic marijuana abuse. Combining drugs that have contradictory effects, such as prescription stimulants and prescription opioids, can produce adverse reactions that overwhelm the body. This increases the chance of overdose. When a person develops addictions to multiple drugs, a condition known as polysubstance addiction, the process of treating addiction can become more difficult.

Can You Overdose on Synthetic Marijuana?

Natural marijuana, while more addictive than is commonly thought, cannot lead to an overdose. In contrast, abusing synthetic marijuana actually leads to a high risk of overdose. The chemicals in synthetic marijuana products are not regulated or standardized. For this reason, it can be difficult to say which or how many of the hundreds of synthetic cannabinoids are found in a product. The potency and effects of a synthetic marijuana product can be very unpredictable. In fact, the symptoms of a synthetic marijuana overdose (often colloquially known as a K2 overdose or Spice overdose) can sometimes be similar to the symptoms of an opioid overdose. The symptoms of a synthetic marijuana overdose vary from product to product, but common psychological and physiological signs of a synthetic marijuana overdose include:

  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Numbness
  • Memory loss
  • Inability to move or speak
  • Seizures
  • Unconsciousness
  • Elevated heart rate, heart tremors, and heart attacks
  • Hallucinations
  • Stroke
  • Confusion
  • Violent or aggressive behavior
  • Panic attacks
  • Acute kidney failure
  • Paranoia
  • Depersonalization
  • Suicidal ideation or actions

These symptoms can vary in intensity, but hospital visits due to synthetic marijuana overdoses are on the rise. In fact, between 2010 and 2011, emergency room visits due to synthetic marijuana abuse doubled in number. For females, the number of synthetic marijuana-related emergency room visits tripled. This is because the physical and emotional side effects of synthetic marijuana can be very unpredictable.

You can get sober at Design for Recovery….recovery is possible.

If you or a loved one suffers from a synthetic marijuana addiction, it is important to get help. Abusing synthetic marijuana at all is dangerous, and it can be a sign that an individual has problems with other substances as well. It may be tempting to try to quit synthetic marijuana on one’s own or try to manage one’s consumption without outside help. However, it is important to recognize that addiction causes changes in the brain on the neurological level, making it difficult if not impossible for a person to follow through on their commitment to quitting. Individual will power alone is rarely sufficient. Getting outside help is essential for individuals suffering from synthetic marijuana addiction.

Design for Recovery, a luxury sober living in Los Angeles, provides the ideal structured and supportive living environment for young men suffering from synthetic marijuana addiction. Residents of our clean and modern facility benefit from the help of a strong sober support system. Together, participants in our structured sober living program work daily to develop new coping skills and strategies for facing triggers. At Design for Recovery, we recognize that achieving physical sobriety is half the battle. We help young men not only get sober, but rebuild their lives from the ground up.

If you are ready to let go of the vicious cycle of synthetic marijuana addiction, contact Design for Recovery today.


Edited by: David Beasley

David Beasley - Design for Recovery

David Beasley is a certified RADT (Registered Alcohol/Drug Technician). David, moved to California from North Carolina after many failed attempts to get sober.

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Charley earned his Masters of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).He teaches mindfulness to both adults and children in group setting such as schools, corporate workplaces, and medical treatment facilities.

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