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Synthetic Cannabinoids: How to Tell the Good from the Bad

Synthetic Cannabinoids: How to Tell the Good from the Bad

Synthetic cannabinoids have had a lot of bad press recently, and with good reason. People are dying from taking them, which has not been observed with natural cannabis or phytocannabinoids (cannabinoids found in plants). Many synthetic cannabinoids were developed for use in labs to study the endocannabinoids system and were never intended for human consumption. The safety data of synthetic cannabinoids is very hard to come by if it even exists at all.

Why are Synthetic Cannabinoids on the Market?

Advances in technology have allowed anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of chemistry, a few thousand dollars and access to some basic lab equipment to tweak the structure of cannabinoids and create new synthetic cannabinoids very easily. Originally, governments only banned the cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant even though only one was psychoactive. Many synthetic cannabinoids were developed because they could be easily produced and were not illegal.

Governments were in a constant battle to identify new synthetic cannabinoids, classify them and to make them illegal. For several months, a dealer could get away with pedalling a new synthetic cannabinoid without breaking the law. As soon as the government changed the law, the clever chemists would just change the structure of the cannabinoid slightly and have a new legal drug to sell.

In 2016, the British government (amongst others) introduced legislation that banned entire groups of molecules (titled the “Novel Psychoactives Act”), anticipating their creation. This was widely criticised by scientists as both ineffective and damaging to research into new cannabinoids, which are essential for studying the endocannabinoid system, a potential therapeutic target for many common disorders.

The illegality of synthetic cannabinoids has had apparently little effect on the availability of synthetic cannabinoids and has had arguably very damaging effects. Because the drugs are illegal, they cannot be obtained from reputable sources and users have no idea what they are taking; actually making it much more dangerous. The case against prohibition has been robustly made by those who study it but governments seem reluctant to act.

The harm from novel psychoactive substances (NPS) continues to increase. An estimated 35 percent of drug tests from juveniles in the USA in 2010 contained synthetic cannabinoids, and 11 percent of high school seniors reported taking them. Since then, the numbers are believed to have gone up.

Where do Synthetic Cannabinoids Come From?

An estimated 150 different synthetic cannabinoids have been identified by the authorities in Europe as being available on the market. Chemical companies in China are the usual source of synthetic cannabinoids (or legal highs, as they are euphemistically known). They are shipped as powders using postal companies or are by airmail and sea cargo for larger quantities. 

Synthetic Cannabinoids and the Endocannabinoid System

Cannabinoids are a wide grouping of substances that interact with the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is an array of receptors, ligands, and enzymes in the body that are present in nearly all the bodily tissues in a human. Many vital processes use the endocannabinoid system from mood regulation and memory to homeostasis, metabolism and pain perception.

There are two main cannabinoid receptors, cannabinoid type 1 receptor (CB1 receptor, or CB1R) and cannabinoid type 2 receptor (CB2 receptor, or CB2R), and a host of other receptors, including serotonin, vanillin and opioid receptors. This immense complexity has made studying the endocannabinoid system extremely difficult.

CB1 receptors in the brain are the main target of synthetic cannabinoids for recreational use. Originally developed to study how CB1R works, many of them bind very strongly to CB1R, much stronger than the endocannabinoids the body produces itself or THC, which is found in the cannabis plant. The high affinity for CB1R means they stop other endocannabinoids binding to the sites, monopolizing them and making them behave very differently.

The main location of CB1R is in the brain. It is the main part of signalling the central nervous system, controlling the release of certain important neurotransmitters. Different concentrations of neurotransmitters changes how the brain talks to itself, so you can see how by binding to CB1R and changing how it interacts with the neurons it helps control, the mind-altering effects of synthetic cannabinoids can generate.

People take synthetic cannabinoids because of the central nervous system effects. However, the endocannabinoid system is extensive and when you take a synthetic cannabinoid, you are affecting the CB1R-mediated processes in the rest of the body too.

Dangers of Taking Synthetic Cannabinoids

The availability of Synthetic Cannabinoids (SC) has caused a very worrying rise in the number of people seeking treatment for addiction and toxicity. From January to May 2015, the United States saw a 330 percent increase in calls to poison control centres from SC use. Deaths and severe health effects are increasing, as 25 people who were hospitalized in New York City due to SC use found out in May. SCs are fast becoming a leading burden to the already strained public health systems in the many parts of the US and they appear to be spreading to other parts of the world where there may not necessarily have any effective treatments available.

Many of the dangers of taking synthetic cannabinoids comes from their CB1R activation in the rest of the body. One SC, JWH-018, has been studied extensively. It binds to CB1R much more strongly than THC. It has been marketed as “K2” and “Spice”, and in one case, caused repetitive seizures, a raised heart rate, as well as anxiety, delusions and hallucinations.

Much of the life-threatening effect of SCs is not understood. Some SCs cause severe liver and kidney damage through their activation of CB2R in those tissues, which many SCs also bind to. Liver disease, inflammation, obesity, and diabetes have also been linked to SC use. Mental health conditions are most common amongst SC users.

Other side effects include

  • agitation or restlessness
  • confusion
  • vertigo
  • hallucinations
  • aphasia
  • aggressive behaviour
  • changes in mood, perception, thinking and attention
  • short-term memory deficits
  • initial unconsciousness followed by somnolence, seizures, amnesia, psychosis, paranoia, panic attack, delusions, dizziness, suicidal behaviour, tolerance and withdrawal in the central nervous system, and “muscle pain or cramps, myoclonia, shaking, rhabdomyolysis
  • hypotension
  • heart palpitations
  • tachycardia
  • bradycardia
  • syncope
  • dyspnea
  • chest pain
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • excessive thirst
  • diarrhoea
  • mydriasis
  • blurry vision
  • light sensitivity
  • conjunctival hyperaemia
  • hyperthermia
  • hypokalemia
  • hyperglycemia
  • acidosis
  • diaphoresis
  • hyperventilation
  • apnea
  • alveolar
  • infiltrates
  • pneumonia
  • renal damage
  • and in several cases deaths

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has issued numerous warnings of SCs laced with dangerous drugs, including an anticoagulant that has killed several people.

Am I Taking a Synthetic Cannabinoid?

Names for SCs include K2, Spice, Krypton, Black Mamba, Cloud 9, Mojo, even “fake weed”; the list goes on. Unfortunately, it is essentially impossible to tell which cannabinoid you are taking without a chemical analysis. Because most people do not have access to mass spectrometers or chromatography equipment, they are left in the dark. In the total absence of a regulated market, manufacturers think of a new name for their product and sell it without the necessary information to make an informed choice.

Because of their novel shapes, many SCs are missed by tests. Even testing for an SC does not reveal its effects. There are many other synthetic drugs on the market that may not necessarily be SCs but are marketed as “legal highs”, implying that they are SCs.

It is basically impossible to know what you are taking when you ingest a synthetic cannabinoid bought on the street. The Dark Web marketplaces sometimes have more information but it cannot be relied upon. In short, you cannot tell the good from the bad without trying it. Experimenting with SCs is very, very dangerous.

Can I Take Synthetic Cannabinoids Safely?

Synthetic cannabinoid products are often sprayed onto plant material. Consumers are rarely if ever, informed how much of the active ingredients have been applied. This can be dangerously confusing. If a user is used to marijuana, they might expect that synthetic marijuana would be used in the same quantities. However, concentrations can be much higher, leading to a toxic dose if equivalent amounts are used.

Even small quantities can be extremely damaging to health. There is no way to ensure safety with SCs.

More research needs to be done on Synthetic Cannabinoids before they can ever be recommended. That is why is best to completely avoid them. If you are looking to them as a cheaper alternative to CBD (which is a natural product that does not get you high) it is still best to stay clear. If something seems too good to be true because the price is so low, and there is very little information on it, then it most definitely is. Many CBD products can vary in price, and not all as expensive as you would think. Check out our selection of safe and natural CBD products here.

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