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What to Know About Synthetic Marijuana (Fake Weed) Use

Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Synthetic cannabinoids, also called synthetic marijuana or fake weed, have been used by many as an alternative to marijuana since products were first introduced in 2002. Despite the fact that these man-made products were created in laboratories to help scientists study the cannabinoid system in the human brain, they often claim to be made of “natural” material from a variety of plants.

Hundreds of synthetic cannabinoids exist and the effects can be unpredictable and even life-threatening.

Also Known As: There are countless fake weed products being sold as herbal smoking blends, legal bud, herbal smoke, marijuana alternatives, fake weed, or herbal buds. This makes it difficult for parents and other adults to identify them. Some of the brand names include Blaze, Blueberry Haze, Dank, Demon Passion Smoke, Genie, Hawaiian Hybrid, K2, Magma, Ninja, Nitro, Ono Budz, Panama Red Ball, Puff, Sativah Herbal Smoke, Skunk, Spice, Ultra Chronic, and Voodoo Spice.

Drug Class: Synthetic marijuana products are classified as new psychoactive substances (NPS), or unregulated mind-altering substances intended to produce the same effects as illegal drugs.  

Common Side Effects: Side effects of the drug include elevated mood, relaxation, altered perception, symptoms of psychosis, extreme anxiety, confusion, paranoia, hallucinations, violent behavior, suicidal thoughts, rapid heart rate, raised blood pressure, vomiting, kidney damage, and seizures.

How to Recognize Fake Weed

Synthetic marijuana often contains a mixture of dried leaves from traditional herbal plants. They are various colors, including green, brown, blonde, and red, and often sold in small packets approximately two by three inches. The packets are often colorful foil packs or plastic zip bags. Some online sellers of legal fake weed products do so with disclaimers like “not for human consumption.”

What Does Synthetic Marijuana Do?

Fake weed works on the same brain cell receptors as THC or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that gets you high). It is typically smoked, brewed in tea, or vaped.   Many of these products are legally marketed as “herbal incense” or “potpourri”.

Some people who use herbal buds say that it produces a high similar to that of marijuana, but it doesn’t last as long. Others experience a relaxed feeling, rather than the “head high” that real marijuana produces. Also of note is the “harsh” taste, which people say “makes your throat burn and your lungs ache” long after you smoke.

Since there are no standards for making, packaging, or selling synthetic weed, it’s impossible to know the type and amount of chemicals in each product as well as what the fake weed will do to you.

What the Experts Say

Although they are often marketed as “100% organic herbs,” none of the fake weed products on the market are completely natural. They have all been found to contain various synthetic cannabinoids, or chemicals produced in laboratories.

Originally, fake marijuana products contained a chemical called HU-210, which has a molecular structure very similar to THC. Because HU-210 is listed as a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States, these fake weed products were manufactured and sold only in Europe.

Since then, new synthetic cannabinoid agonists have been created. They are too numerous to list. Some are similar in structure to THC; others are not. Some are classified as controlled substances. By using different synthetic marijuana mixtures, manufacturers are able to continue to legally market their products in the United States when another formulation becomes illegal.

According to the DEA, the majority of these chemical compounds are produced in Asia with no regulations or standards.   They are then smuggled into the United States where they are sprinkled onto “plant material,” packaged and ultimately sold in tobacco shops, convenience stores, and the like.

Some of these chemicals are still legal. However, since synthetic marijuana first hit the market, more than 20 of these compounds have become controlled in some way at the federal level.   At the same time, they noted that more than 75 additional compounds have been identified but are not currently controlled.  

In 2015, the DEA listed 15 varieties of synthetic marijuana as Schedule I controlled substances in the Drugs of Abuse resource guide. This places them in the same federal category as heroin, crack cocaine, and marijuana.

Many people buy into the idea that fake marijuana products are safe since the chemicals are “legal” and contain “natural” ingredients. However, this has proven to be false with multiple cases of severe, unexplained bleeding or bruising, and some deaths.   Other reports show an increase in emergency room visits due to rapid heart rate, vomiting, violent behavior, suicidal thoughts, kidney damage, and seizures.

Off-Label Uses

Some of the fake marijuana products sold commercially claim to contain herbs traditionally used for medicinal purposes, including:

  • Beach bean (Canavalia maritima)  
  • Blue Egyptian water lily (nymphaea caerulea)
  • Dwarf skullcap (scutellaria nana)
  • Indian warrior (pedicularis densiflora)  
  • Lion’s tail (leonotis leonurus)
  • Indian lotus (nelumbo nucifera)
  • Honeyweed (leonurus sibiricus)

However, one study revealed that some of the herbal ingredients listed by the manufacturers could not be found in the products.

Beyond the synthetic cannibinoid HU-210, which is used by scientists to identify cannibinoid receptors in the brain and study the effects Δ-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ-9-THC), there are no approved or off-label medical uses for synthetic marijuana.

Common Side Effects

While research is advancing, the effect synthetic marijuana products may have on the human body is largely unknown. To date, few studies have been published testing the effects of the chemicals on users. Within the DEA report, they note overdoses that have caused fatal heart attacks.   Similarly, acute kidney injury resulting in hospitalization and dialysis have been connected to these synthetics.

One study compared the level of impairment for drivers who were arrested for intoxicated driving.   One group had smoked synthetic cannabinoids and those in the other group were high on marijuana. The study found a significant increase in confusion, disorientation, and incoherence in the synthetic marijuana group. Slurred speech, a side effect not normally associated with natural cannabis use, was also reported among the synthetic cannabinoid users.

Beyond the short-term effects mentioned, an increase in blood pressure, as well as seizures, tremors, and anxiety, have been noted in synthetic marijuana users.

Whether these observed symptoms will have lasting effects, particularly on adolescents and young adult users, is not yet known. Of course, smoking any substance could have negative effects on the lungs.

“The problem with JWH-018 (a synthetic cannabinoid compound) is that absolutely nothing is known regarding its toxicity or metabolites,” says John Huffman, who helped develop the JWH-018 chemical. “Therefore, it is potentially dangerous and should not be used.” JWH-018 is also known as 1-Pentyl-3-(1-naphthyl) indole and is one of the Schedule I controlled substances listed with the DEA.

Recently, a version of synthetic marijuana was laced with rat poison, causing uncontrolled bleeding in hundreds of people and killing several others who ingested the tainted products.

If you or a loved one has used synthetic marijuana and begin experiencing severe, unexplained bleeding or bruising, call 911 or asked a loved one to take you to the hospital immediately. These are all signs of contaminated cannabinoid products.

Signs of Use

If you are a parent of a young adult, it pays to know the behaviors and physical effects of using fake weed. While exhibiting one or two of these signs might not mean that your child is using, they are all strong indicators of drug use and should be taken seriously.

  • Burning incense
  • Buying or using eye drops
  • Possessing dried plants or herbs
  • Having rolling papers or vape pens
  • Receiving suspicious packages in the mail
  • Displaying unusual or secretive behaviors
  • Restlessness  
  • Red or irritated eyes
  • Pale complexion  
  • Acting confused

Myths and Common Questions

Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about herbal bud is that it is “natural marijuana.” It is not; it is created from any of several hundred man-made synthetic chemicals that are sprayed onto the chopped plant material.

Synthetic marijuana is also far more potent, containing TCH analogs or synthetic cannabinoids that can be up to 600 times more potent than THC found in marijuana.   Often, additives, toxic impurities, and other types of drugs are also found in fake weed products.

Tolerance, Dependence, and Withdrawal

Regularly using “fake weed” can result in increased tolerance, or needing more and more of the drug to experience the same high. If you regularly use synthetic cannabinoids, you can also become both physically and psychologically dependent. This means if you stop abruptly, you’ll likely experience withdrawal symptoms.

Since the chemical composition of fake weed is unknown and can change from batch to batch, tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal may also vary.

How Long Does Fake Weed Stay in Your System?

How long synthetic cannabinoids stay in your system depends on several factors, including the type, how it is administered (i.e., inhaled or ingested), amount consumed, and frequency of use. Since these synthetic drugs don’t trigger a positive result on most standard urine drug tests   , many people turn to these drugs in an attempt to avoid positive drug screens for employment, rehab, or legal reasons.

Addiction

Long-term, regular use of synthetic cannabinoids can lead to addiction. If you have a history of mental illness or a substance use disorder, the risk of addiction is even greater.

In addition to building up a tolerance and experiencing symptoms of withdrawal, other signs of synthetic cannabinoid addiction can include:

  • You use more than intended, even after telling yourself that you’ll only “take a few hits.”
  • You are unable to cut down or stop and have likely failed numerous times at quitting.
  • You spend lots of time getting high, often at the expense of spending time with loved ones or doing activities you once enjoyed.
  • You continue to use despite any problems with family and friends, employment, or legal troubles.
  • You depend on the drug to “relax” or for creativity.

Withdrawal

Symptoms of synthetic weed withdrawal can range from mild to severe, depending on how frequent and how long you have been using, and include the following:

  • Headache  
  • Severe anxiety
  • Depression  
  • Irritability

How to Get Help

If you suspect that someone you love is using synthetic marijuana, the most important thing you can do is spend time with them, communicate the dangers of fake weed, and watch for any signs of use. While behavioral therapies and medications have yet to be specifically tested for the treatment of synthetic cannabinoid addiction, a health care professional can work with you and your loved one to safely detox from the drug as well as identify and treat any co-occurring mental illness.

In addition to getting a recommendation from a trusted health care professional, the Partnership at DrugFree.org has a helpline and tips so families know what to ask when vetting a rehab.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Learn what experts have to say about synthetic marijuana or "fake weed" as well as common side effects, myths, signs of use, and risk for addiction.

The Dangers Of Laced Marijuana You Need To Know About

Thursday, December 3, 2015 | By jpemeraldcoast

Marijuana is the most commonly used drug nationwide. Its growing popularity and legalization have also led to talk of laced marijuana, which is cannabis that has had other substances added to it such as meth, cocaine, PCP and ecstasy.

Fortunately, laced marijuana isn’t as common as talking on the street would have you believe. Although uncommon, the dangers are real. Knowing what to look for and what to do if you or your friends encounter laced marijuana is important

How Common Is Laced Marijuana?

It’s hard to say how common laced marijuana is because users rarely admit they’ve encountered it unless they end up in the emergency room from it.

Nationwide, 5.6 percent of adults over age 26 have used marijuana in the past month. That number jumps to 19.1 percent for people over age 18 who have used in the past month. Among those who have used marijuana recently, it is likely that only a very small percentage have encountered laced marijuana.

Authorities in Texas, Arizona, Florida and other southern states in the U.S. have reported an increase in users of “fry,” a type of marijuana-laced cigarette. Fry isn’t new to the market, but use seems to be increasing. Marijuana blunts are dipped in codeine-based cough syrup or embalming fluid mixed with PCP.

Laced weed is more commonly reported when it has the potential to cause overdoses. In Vancouver, Canada, police reported seizing a stash of fentanyl-laced weed during a fentanyl-ring drug bust. Fentanyl is a synthetic narcotic that is highly addictive and easily causes an overdose. Police publicized their findings of laced weed to warn recreational drug users, especially casual pot smokers, to avoid buying weed in certain parts of Vancouver where the laced marijuana may show up on the streets. Smokers who had never been exposed to fentanyl were in serious danger of overdosing.

The Dangers of Laced Marijuana

As the Canadian report demonstrates, officials are growing increasingly concerned over laced marijuana. It’s still uncommon, but the dangers are real. The dangers of laced marijuana include:

  • Overdose: The fentanyl-laced marijuana bust shows the increasing danger of unwitting overdoses from recreational drug use. Although someone may smoke marijuana only once or twice a year, the wrong joint could send them to the emergency room or the morgue, depending on which drug is used to lace the marijuana. You can’t tell by looking at laced marijuana that there’s something in it, so you can easily overdose if it’s laced without knowing it.
  • Aggression: Marijuana laced with PCP can cause psychotic and dangerous behavior. People can commit violent crimes while under the influence of PCP. Add marijuana’s hallucinogenic effects to the mix and you’ve got a volatile cocktail of chemicals. Users often don’t remember what they did after smoking PCP-laced marijuana. Instead of relaxing, they can become unmanageable and violent.
  • Breathing and heart problems: PCP and other drugs used to lace marijuana can causes changes in breathing and heart rate. Often a rapid heartbeat and elevated blood pressure accompany the most commonly used lacing drugs such as PCP, cocaine, and meth. Damage to your heart and lungs can occur.
  • Psychotic behavior: Because the high is so strong from laced marijuana, psychotic symptoms can be bizarre and last longer than usual. This can result in being diagnosed with schizophrenia or other mental illnesses when you don’t actually have them.
  • Addiction: Marijuana by itself is highly addictive. Weed sold today is a lot stronger than that smoked by your parents or grandparents. Growers have selectively bred marijuana to increase the amount of THC, the active ingredient in the plant. Add to that a potent cocktail of other highly addictive drugs like fentanyl, meth, cocaine or even heroin, and laced weed is even more addictive than regular weed. The chances of addiction increase from laced marijuana.

The Signs and Symptoms of Laced Marijuana

Smoking laced weeds create different symptoms than plain marijuana. Most users report that they know they’ve smoked something other than marijuana within 15 or 20 minutes after finishing a joint. The sensations are different.

Each drug used to lace marijuana causes different symptoms. These include:

  • PCP-laced marijuana: Marijuana laced with PCP causes a wide range of symptoms including severe hallucinations, impaired coordination, slurred speech, aggressive or violent behavior, disorientation, paranoia, and seizures. If too much is smoked, the person can fall into a coma and die.
  • Embalming fluid: PCP’s street name, “embalming fluid,” causes a lot of confusion. Some kids think that lacing their weed with actual embalming fluid can increase their high. True embalming fluid contains formaldehyde, a cancer-causing chemical. Anyone actually smoking weed laced with embalming fluid will damage their lungs, nasal passages, and even their brain. Actual embalming fluid is also used as a solvent to mix the PCP into a liquid “dip.” Blunts are dipped into this mixture to lace them with PCP. The resulting concoction causes severe paranoia, hallucinations, and violent behavior. Embalming fluid also accumulates in the spinal column and can stop growth in young children.
  • Fentanyl: Fentanyl-laced marijuana is especially dangerous because it enters the brain faster than typical medical applications via a patch or lozenge. Clammy skin slowed heartbeat, seizures, and severe drowsiness are all signs of a fentanyl overdose. If you suspect that someone has accidentally smoked fentanyl-laced marijuana, get them to a hospital immediately. Too much fentanyl can actually stop the heart and brain functions, and it’s easy to overdose on it when it’s mixed with marijuana.
  • Codeine-laced cough syrup: A specific, intentionally laced type of marijuana is called fry. Dealers take a blunt and dip it into codeine-laced cough syrup or embalming fluid mixed with PCP. The resulting marijuana is laced with additional drugs, and although users say it tastes and smells terrible, it results in a very powerful high. Fry smokers use the drug in groups because the resulting violence, paranoia, panic and occasional loss of consciousness can be dangerous. Users also experience strong hallucinations.

Anytime someone has a seizure or passes out and you can’t wake them up, call 9-1-1 and request help. Don’t wait for the person to wake up. An overdose of laced marijuana can be fatal, especially if someone has taken a drug they’re not used to. Breathing difficulties, trouble waking up and seizures are all signs that the brain has been affected and the person may be in serious trouble.

How to Tell If Marijuana Is Laced

Aside from fry smokers, who know that what they’re buying is laced, some dealers won’t say when marijuana is laced. Others get marijuana from friends who may not know if the drug is laced or not. To protect yourself, you need to know what to look for to tell if marijuana is laced.

  • Smell it: Fresh marijuana smells green, like plants, grass or leaves. If it smells harsh, like gasoline, nail polish remover or other chemicals, it may have been laced.
  • Look at it: Look for blue or white crystals. These are signs that marijuana may have been laced. Brown crystals can be natural to certain types of marijuana, but blue or white can indicate that other drugs have been added to it.
  • Test it: The only way to really know for sure whether your marijuana is laced or not is to buy a drug testing kit. Kits can test for cocaine and meth, but not for other drugs, so just be aware that they can’t catch everything.

If you’re ever in any doubt about marijuana, throw it out. It’s better to be safe than to be sorry. Trust your instincts. They’re usually right. If you think you’ve got a bad batch of laced weed, don’t take chances. Get rid of it.

You may even consider giving up marijuana for good. Marijuana is dangerous. It’s highly addictive and often a gateway into taking harder drugs. Once you get used to smoking marijuana, it’s easy to dabble in other drugs, and you could eventually become addicted. The transformation from recreational drug user to a serious addict is faster than you may think.

Although many people today seem to think that it’s no more harmful than a glass of wine, experts say that marijuana causes long-term brain changes that can reduce your intelligence, disrupt memory and change how your brain works. Studies have shown that smoking marijuana can reduce your I.Q. by 8 points. Most people would agree that you need brainpower to be a success in life. Don’t do anything to jeopardize your natural-born intelligence.

Will You Encounter Laced Marijuana?

Fortunately, laced marijuana is still a rarity. Most dealers aren’t giving product away for free, and lacing takes away drugs they can sell on their own. Although there are rumors that dealers lace marijuana to get users hooked more rapidly and strongly to their products, it’s economically unlikely they’d cut into their profits.

Some types of laced marijuana, such as the previously mentioned fry, are on the rise throughout the southern United States. Canada has seen pockets of marijuana laced with opiates including fentanyl and heroin, but it is reasonably rare. PCP-laced marijuana is more common throughout the United States.

Incidences of laced marijuana tend to occur in pockets. Sometimes, one person tries laced weed and recommends it to their friends. A dealer may get in a bad batch, or someone may share laced marijuana with friends. This may make the problem seem worse than it really is.

Whether or not laced marijuana remains scarce is unknown. Like fashion and music, drugs follow trends, too. Lacing drugs have been around for a long time, whether it’s laced marijuana, heroin or cocaine.

Get Help for Your Marijuana Addiction

We’re not making light of smoking marijuana, nor advocating safe marijuana use. There’s no such thing. The marijuana on the street today is many times stronger and more addictive than marijuana in the past. Some experts even want to classify it as a new and different drug because it’s so powerful.

Any use of illegal drugs or abuse of legal, prescription, and over-the-counter medications can be fatal. Drugs not only mess up your body, but they mess up your life. A casual marijuana habit can turn into a serious habit, addiction or multiple addictions over time.

At JourneyPure Emerald Coast, we can help you with a marijuana addiction, chemical dependency, and even mental health challenges. Our structured yet flexible setting helps people recover from addiction.

JourneyPure Emerald Coast offers traditional recovery programs mixed with experiential activities that help people recover from their addiction. Individual and group therapy helps clients discover some of the underlying causes of their addiction, while 12-step meetings help people embrace the ‘spiritual awakening’ necessary for sobriety.

Our comfortable facility, low client-to-staff ratio, and compassionate staff can help you recover and claim your life once again. If you’re tired of struggling with drug addiction, marijuana addiction and more, give us a call. We understand how you feel and are here to answer any questions you may have.

Learn more about our marijuana addiction treatment or contact JourneyPure Emerald Coast for help.

How common is laced marijuana? What are the dangers? Regardless, officials are growing increasingly concerned over this growing trend.