Synthetic Cannabinoids: K2 and Spice

Image Credit: Kelley McCall, Associated Press

What are they?

In the 1990s, an American chemist discovered a group of compounds called synthetic cannabinoids during his laboratory research.  They were found to work similarly in the brain to THC – the active ingredient in marijuana – and were up to 28 times more potent.  They were never intended for human use.  Once these molecules were known to the public, some individuals began to manufacture, package, and sell them as “herbal incense” or “aromatherapy”.  At the time they were not controlled substances.  By the late 2000s, the problem had grown out of control. Emergency departments worldwide had been reporting cases of seizures, delirium, and even death in patients who had used these substances recreationally.

What do they look like?

Though they can come in a variety of different forms, synthetic cannabinoids are most commonly marketed as “herbal incense”.  These products are simply plant matter (dried herbs) that have been sprayed with one or more of the cannabinoid chemicals.  It is important to note that there is no standardization or regulation of their potency.

So are they really legal?

Not anymore.  At one time, these compounds were legal under the pretense that they were not for human consumption.  The manufacturers had effectively found a loophole in US drug laws.  States began to outlaw the substances individually, but because there were so many variations of each molecule, it became difficult to define and enforce laws surrounding them.  The state of Georgia banned the products in March 2012.

  • FACT: In July 2012, President Obama signed an act that effectively banned synthetic cannabinoids from the US market. It is now considered a felony to buy, sell, or possess these compounds.

Why do people use them?

People use them as a marijuana substitute, often because they cannot be detected by standard drug screens.

How do they work?

These compounds work in the brain similarly to marijuana.  However, there is evidence to suggest that they work in other ways as well, resulting in adverse effects. At this time, there have been no legitimate human tests of these products and their safety is unknown.

What can they cause?

Aside from the high that users seek, these compounds can cause a variety of other changes in the body including:

  • Agitation
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Delirium, disorientation, irritability
  • Numbness, tremors, weakness
  • Seizures
  • Fast heart rate
  • Heart dysrhythmias
  • FACT: There have been several reports of deaths associated with synthetic cannabinoids, the most famous in Georgia being 16-year-old Chase Burnett of Fayetteville.  Chase’s body was found on March 4th, 2012 and his death was determined to be related to “Spice herbal incense”.  Within 3 weeks, Georgia legislature signed an act to ban the substances, calling the new enactment “Chase’s law”.

How common are they?

In 2011, there were 6,959 calls to American Poison centers about adverse events related to synthetic cannabinoids. In the first four months of 2012, the Georgia Poison Center received calls regarding 102 exposures

Source: AAPCC