Synthetic Weed Effects: The Facts You Need to Know

With so many teens hospitalized, why is synthetic weed legal, and real weed a crime?

The facts about synthetic weed and its effects demonstrate that its dangerous and second only to the real thing. Is the risk worth the reward? (Photo: Getty Images)

Mar 21, 2012· 4 MIN READ
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

In case you haven't heard, synthetic weed is now being sold legally as "incense" in gas stations and convenience stores across the country. With fun, sporty names like "Mr. Nice Guy" and "K2," the product is growing in popularity with teens, many of whom assume that synthetic pot isn't any different from the real thing—other than being legal.

Not only are you paying more, you'll need more to get as high as you would smoking natural weed.

The trend to sell synthetic weed has become increasingly troubling to police and medical officials, many of whom have seen the health hazards of the drug firsthand. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, 6,955 calls were received last year involving people who were harmfully exposed to synthetic weed, more than double the 2,915 calls received in 2010 (and exponentially more than the 15 calls received in 2009).

So if you're thinking about heading down to the gas station to huff your fix, take a moment and reconsider. Here are five facts about the effects of synthetic weed you might want to know before puffing on pretend potpourri.

1. It's Not Weed

To state the obvious, synthetic weed isn't the same substance as marijuana, and it's not even close. Originally developed by John Huffman, an organic chemistry professor at Clemson University, JWH-018, the active cannabinoid in synthetic pot, was originally meant for lab animals. Despite some similarities in smell, the fake stuff can be up to 100 times stronger than the organic variety, and can lead to convulsions, seizures, paranoia, hallucinations and high blood pressure in humans.

"These things are dangerous—anybody who uses them is playing Russian roulette," said Huffman to the Los Angeles Times. "They have profound psychological effects. We never intended them for human consumption."

2. Fake Weed Can Contain Anything

In 2011, JWH018 and four other cannabinoids were made temporarily illegal by the DEA so they could assess the health risks and effects. Manufacturers of synthetic weed quickly found ways around the ban. As Dr. Gregory Bunt writes in Huffington Post: "Every time one chemical gets banned, makers substitute another chemical, chemically virtually identical in its composition and effects, to circumvent a ban. The solution to implement a broader, widespread ban on synthetic chemicals has yet to overcome legislative hurdles."

With hundreds of cannabinoids on the market, it's unlikely that authorities will end this cat-and-mouse game any time soon. Which means that, in the meantime, you'll smoke any number of volatile, unknown and unregulated substances in your synthetic weed, which could effect your body in various ways.

3. The Fake Stuff Is Expensive

Synthetic weed is usually sold in one-gram bags, which go for $25 each. In comparison, the street value for more potent strains of marijuana is about $14 a gram, about 40 percent less. Making matters worse, the high from synthetic weed doesn't last as long as the natural variety (at least according to most accounts). So not only are users paying more, they'll need more to maintain the high.

4. Fake Weed Can Be Fatal

Unlike regular marijuana, synthetic pot has been known to severely injure and even kill users. Last October, a 13-year-old Pennsylvania boy suffered chemical burns to his lungs from smoking synthetic pot, eventually undergoing a double lung transplant before dying from infection. A month earlier, a 53-year-old Ottawa woman died after purchasing the drug from a convenience store and falling in her home. Around the same time, three Texas teenagers suffered heart attacks shortly after smoking synthetic weed.

Said John Huffman to the Los Angeles Times: "You can't overdose on marijuana, but you might on these compounds. These things are dangerous, and marijuana isn't, really."

5. Fake Weed Just Isn't Worth It

Even if you smoke synthetic weed and nothing bad happens, is it really worth playing Russian roulette with your health? There are wide disparities in quality from batch to batch, and no studies have tested synthetic pot's long-term effects, making complications difficult to diagnose and treat. Said Dr. Joanna Cohen, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Children's National Medical Center, to CBS News: "... There is little information about this drug in the medical literature. Because it is a relatively new drug, we should be aware of the symptoms and make a concerted effort to share our experiences in treating patients so we can develop best practices."

Are the potential effects of synthetic weed enough to keep you from purchasing it? Tell us in the comments