Synthetic Cannabis Is Much More Dangerous Than the Real Thing

In the early 2000’s, headshops found a loophole in drug laws and started selling synthetic marijuana, a product more commonly known as K2 Spice. This synthetic drug is often marketed as herbal incense and labeled as containing all-natural herbal ingredients.

This isn’t exactly true – while the herbs are natural, it was originally coated with a synthetic compound developed by pharmaceutical company Pfizer, called Cannabicyclohexanol (CCH, CP 47,497 dimethyloctyl homologue, (C8)-CP 47,497). Since then, the active ingredient has been altered several times, making spice a dangerous designer drug.

Spice was sold in headshops and gas stations across the country during the prohibition of cannabis, and, due to its reputation as a synthetic cannabis, it attracted many users that couldn’t get a hold of the real thing.

Spice is nothing like cannabis, however, providing none of the medical benefits, a completely different (and unpredictable) high, and the possibility of overdose.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) Chemical Structure
The chemical structure of THC

Legal Gray Areas

The Drug Enforcement Agency is often behind the curve, still classifying cannabis as a Schedule I drug, making it as dangerous as heroin, cocaine, etc., in the agency’s eyes. It wasn’t until 2012 (nearly a full decade after the drug spread across the country) that spice was classified as a Schedule I drug and made illegal.

Prior to this, several states baned the sale of the substance, leading home-chemists to skirt the law by altering the chemical compound, creating new synthetic cannabinoids, including JWH-018, JWH-073, AM-2201, and HU-210.

Each of these active ingredients differs only slightly in chemical makeup, though any chemist will tell you this can make a huge difference.

The chemical structure of Cannabicyclohexanol
The chemical structure of Cannabicyclohexanol

A Dangerous Chemistry Lesson

Despite its illegal status, the chemicals to make K2 spice are easily obtainable online, either through Chinese companies on the regular Internet or black markets only accessible through the deep web. Ten grams of the above chemicals can be obtained for $200 or less, enough to make up to three pounds of spice.

The herb most commonly used as a base in retail spice is marshmallow leaf, a pound of which can be obtained for $10-$20 on Amazon. Marshmallow leaf should not be confused for marshmallow root, which will be much more woody and produce a very harsh smoke.

Acetone and a microscoop are used to measure out and dissolve the active spice ingredient so it can be sprayed on the marshmallow leaf. Once the acetone is evaporated, the herb can be smoked. Often people then add tobacco flavoring to produce the wide variety of flavors found in smoke shops.

The chemical structure of HU-210
The chemical structure of HU-210

Warnings About Synthetic Cannabis

Though labeled as synthetic THC, the chemical compounds used in K2 spice are nothing like the THC found in marijuana. In addition, it only focuses on that one compound, ignoring the CBD and other terpines found in naturally grown cannabis.

Smoking spice does not produce a high anything close to what cannabis produces. Spice gives a head rush that’s often accompanied by loss of body movement, especially in extremities like your arms and legs. It lasts for 10 to 30 minutes max, and then the euphoria fades and is replaced with a hungover feeling.

One batch of spice can greatly differ from the next, and inconsistencies even exist within the same batch, as the drug is often created in garages and homes. Much like other designer drugs like ecstasy and methamphetamine, the lack of quality control means you’ll never know what active ingredient is being used, nor the levels and purity.

Smoking spice while still wet means you’ll be smoking acetone, which can have immediate adverse affects, such as loss of voice or death. Even with the acetone completely evaporated, the risk associated with smoking spice is high.

Many reported deaths have been attributed to spice, and the addictive nature is as well documented as the psychotic episodes caused by usage of the drug. None of these issues exist with cannabis.

If you choose to smoke spice, there’s nothing I can do to stop you, but understand that it is nothing like cannabis. Calling it synthetic cannabis is a misnomer, as it’s more akin to other synthetic drugs. If you’re a pothead looking to get stoned, spice is nothing close to an alternative to weed.

Brian Penny Whistleblower Weed Police gonzoBrian Penny is a former business analyst and operations manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer. His work has been featured on Huffington Post, The Street, Fast Company, BBC, Hardcore Droid, and Cannabis Now.


Dr. Brian Penny is a former Business Analyst and Operations Manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer. You can find his work in Cracked, High Times, HuffPost, Lifewire, Forbes, Fast Company, and dozens of other places, although much of it is no longer under his name. Dr. Penny loves annoying fake media.

6 thoughts on “Synthetic Cannabis Is Much More Dangerous Than the Real Thing

  • July 4 at 12:56 am

    I think spice started out innocently enough. I remember when it first came out and the only one around was “K2”. Let’s just say… I had a lot of experience with K2 and it really was pretty similar to marijuana (a bit stronger, but pretty similar).

    But hell, the stuff that came out after K2? And the stuff that’s out there nowadays? It’s evil to even call it “synthetic weed”. I’ve heard of plenty of people with full blown addictions to the stuff, frying the brains, ODing, all kinds of horrible things. Things that don’t happen with weed.

    And to think spice would probably have never even existed if weed were just legal in the first place…

  • July 2 at 11:11 pm

    Thank you for this article!
    I think everyone should read this and explain this to their children.
    I have seen and heard through a legit source of many, many children dying from this drug just in my area ( small city) alone.
    The effects are horrendous!
    Some people, if they don’t die are left very damaged, mentally and physically.
    I so wish the authorities could get it off the shelves. Of course it will never disappear completely because of how it is made but, it would be harder to get a hold of if you could not buy it in every head shop.
    They never should of gave it the name Synthetic Marijauna.
    Thats the reason people and our children think its ok to smoke.
    They just don’t understand the difference.
    The scientist are still not even sure of the effects on the brain of long term use. It has proven to be a very serious man made drug that should of never have been released to the public.

    The man that made up the first chemical JWH### something to that effect, was not suppose to be put out into the general public.
    I read an article sometime ago now, that he himself said that people would have to be absolutely crazy to digest this drug in any fashion.

    Nothing stays safe anymore, especial if theres millions to be made.
    Makes me very angry!
    To many children are dying and not enough help to teach these kids the dangers and how to live their lives without substance abuse.
    They just need our help and let them know that people do care about them and that they are worth having a life.
    They are making a death sentence without even noticing, instead of making life experiences.
    There is so much to live for.
    Very upsetting!
    Thanks again!

    • July 3 at 4:50 am

      I agree. I tried it a few years back when I had the same dumb thought of “well they’re calling it synthetic marijuana, and it’s legal so it must be safe.” I almost OD’ed and died. I got very lucky, and I’ll never touch the stuff again. I’m more mad at myself for taking as long as I did to contribute to the movement against this stuff. It’s horrible, and it wouldn’t have to exist if cannabis were legal.

  • July 1 at 10:56 am

    It is NOT synthetic cannabis!!

    You contribute to the misinformation by using such a misleading term. It is synthetic THC, just one of the 400+ compounds found in cannabis. So, not only is it synthetic (which may or may not be a problem) but it doesn’t even pretend to mimic the effect of whole plant cannabis.

    • July 1 at 6:27 pm

      That’s clearly explained in the piece, Peter, had you read more than just the title. The term “synthetic cannabis” refers to the marketing term used to sell spice.

      I very clearly detail “Though labeled as synthetic THC, the chemical compounds used in K2 spice are nothing like the THC found in marijuana. In addition, it only focuses on that one compound, ignoring the CBD and other terpines found in naturally grown cannabis.” to ensure people are aware that the active ingredients used are not only synthetic compounds that differ in molecular structure to THC, but that they focus only on THC.

      Synthetic THC is added to an herb to create synthetic cannabis, and the end product is dangerous because of the synthetic active ingredient.

      Any “misinformation” is a result of your inability to read, which is out of my control as a writer.


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