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Synthetic Cannabinoid Facts

Synthetic cannabinoids like Spice and K2 are man-made, unregulated, and sometimes illegal chemicals often marketed misleadingly as “natural” alternatives to marijuana. However, they are dangerous drugs, which are concerning because of their unpredictable effects and potential for misuse.

This article will explain:

  • What synthetic cannabinoids are.
  • How synthetic cannabinoids are used.
  • Withdrawal symptoms and the potential for addiction.
  • Effects of synthetic cannabinoids like Spice/K2.
  • How to find synthetic cannabinoid Spice/K2 addiction treatment.

What Are Synthetic Cannabinoids?

Synthetic cannabinoids are unregulated chemicals that belong to a group of drugs called new (or novel) psychoactive substances (NPS), which are created in labs to produce similar effects to illicit or regulated substances.1, 2

Despite being promoted as a safe and legal version of marijuana, synthetic cannabinoids can be strong, potentially dangerous substances.2 The synthetic compounds are sprayed onto shredded or crumbled plant matter, which can resemble potpourri to be smoked, or sold in liquid form to be inhaled or vaporized.2, 3

The mind-altering chemicals are like the THC found in marijuana, but the effects can be more intense and dramatically different.1, 2 Ingredients and potential health risks aren’t included on the label, which can make synthetic cannabinoids more dangerous to use.1, 3

Synthetic cannabinoids are sold under various names to appeal to a younger audience.1 Some of the most popular names for synthetic cannabinoids are Spice and K2. Other common names for synthetic cannabinoids include:1

  • AK-47
  • Blaze.
  • Ninja.
  • Fire.
  • Paradise.
  • Serenity.
  • Fake weed.
  • Nice Guy
  • Smoke.
  • Skunk.
  • Zohai.

 How Do People Use Synthetic Cannabinoids?

Synthetic cannabinoids like Spice and K2 can be used in several different ways, depending on the formulation. A few common ways to use synthetic cannabinoids include:

  • Smoking in a pipe or rolled cigarettes, which have plant matter sprayed with chemical substances or sprinkled on top of marijuana.1, 2
  • Eating or drinking by brewing substances into a tea or mixing them into food.4
  • Vaporizing liquid formulations through electronic devices like e-cigarettes.1

What is Addiction?

Addiction, also known by its clinical name, substance use disorder (SUD), is a chronic, medical disease characterized by the inability to stop or control substance use even after experiencing negative physical, mental, and/or social consequences. K2 or Spice addiction may be possible since several chemical substances used in Spice/K2 are designated as Schedule I substances in the U.S., which means they have no known medical use and a high potential for abuse.1

Diagnosing a SUD can only be done by a medical professional; however, knowing the criteria for SUDs may help you recognize potential misuse and the need for support and/or treatment. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) outlines the following criteria for SUDs:7

  • Using a substance in larger quantities or more frequently than originally intended.
  • Inability to cut back or stop using a substance even though you want to.
  • Spending excessive amounts of time obtaining, using, and recovering from the effects of the substance.
  • Experiencing cravings, or intense desires to use a substance.
  • Inability to fulfill work, home, or school obligations and recreational activities because of substance use.
  • Continuing to use a substance even when you experience social or interpersonal problems, which are caused or worsened by substance misuse.
  • Recurrent substance use in situations where it’s physically hazardous, such as driving a car or operating heavy machinery.
  • Continuing to use a substance even when you have a chronic physical or mental health problem that is likely caused by or worsened by substance use.
  • Experiencing tolerance, which means you need more of a substance to feel its previous effects.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you suddenly stop or reduce your intake of a substance, which contributes to relapse to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Effects of Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids may cause people to feel similar effects to marijuana, such as feeling relaxed, an improved mood, and changes in perception.2 It can also produce psychotic effects like delusions, paranoia, confusion, and hallucinations.2

These effects occur because of the way synthetic cannabinoids bind to nerve cell receptors in your brain, similar to how they bind with THC in marijuana. However, substances like Spice and K2 can bind more strongly, which may produce more severe and longer-lasting effects that are also unpredictable.2

In addition, since there are no standards or regulations governing the manufacturing and selling of synthetic cannabinoids, it’s difficult to predict which chemical is being taken. Products may be contaminated with other chemicals (e.g., synthetic cathinones or “bath salts”), and consistency between brands can be highly variable.4

However, some of the known adverse health effects that have been reported include:

  • Difficulty thinking clearly and focusing.1, 4
  • Headaches.
  • Heart palpitations
  • Rapid heart rate.1
  • High blood pressure.1
  • Numbness and tingling.1
  • Feeling sleepy and dizzy.4
  • Problems breathing.4
  • Vomiting.1, 2
  • Issues with the gastrointestinal tract.4
  • Agitation, severe anxiety, aggression, and violent outbursts.1
  • Thoughts of suicide.2

The long-term effects of synthetic cannabinoids have not been extensively studied and aren’t fully known.2, 4

Synthetic Cannabinoid Withdrawal Symptoms

Uncomfortable and potentially severe withdrawal symptoms can occur if a person who regularly uses synthetic cannabinoids stops using suddenly.2, 4 Common withdrawal symptoms after stopping regular use of synthetic cannabinoids like Spice and K2 can include:

  • Anxiety.2, 4
  • Depression.2
  • Headaches.2, 4
  • Moodiness or irritability.2
  • Nausea and vomiting.4
  • Sweating.4

Evidence suggests that more severe withdrawal symptoms may occur after using heavily for a prolonged period, including:4

  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Fast heart rate or palpitations.
  • Pain in the chest.
  • Seizures.

Can You Overdose on Synthetic Cannabinoids?

It is possible to experience a Spice/K2 overdose or an overdose on other synthetic cannabinoids.1 An overdose happens when too much of a substance is taken, leading to severe, dangerous, and potentially fatal conditions including: 1, 2, 4

  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Psychotic episodes.
  • Kidney failure.
  • Seizures.
  • Reduction of blood to the heart.
  • High blood pressure, which may result in stroke, heart attack, or even death.

Treatment for Spice/K2 and Synthetic Cannabinoid Addiction

Currently, there are no FDA-approved medications for detox and treatment of Spice/K2 withdrawal symptoms or other synthetic cannabinoids.2, 3 In addition, medications and behavioral therapies have not been evaluated or tested for treating addiction to synthetic cannabinoids like Spice or K2.2, 3

If you or someone you know is experiencing acute intoxication, withdrawal symptoms, or is otherwise ill because of taking these products, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises immediate medical attention via 9-1-1 or seeking emergency care.

If synthetic cannabinoid use is part of a larger pattern of compulsive substance use, you may benefit from additional behavioral therapeutic approaches for SUD management.

Finding the right addiction treatment for you or a loved one is a courageous step toward living a healthier life, but it can be difficult to know which treatment is most appropriate. American Addiction Centers (AAC) has facilities across the U.S., which provide drug and alcohol addiction treatment and offer treatment for co-occurring disorders.

Our caring staff is available 24/7 at to help you understand different types of treatment and how insurance may help cover the cost of care. If you or a loved one are ready to get help, contact us today to learn more about our evidence-based addiction treatment programs so you can start on the path of recovery.