The Real Dangers of Synthetic Marijuana and Fake Weed

Man holding Synthetic Marijuana
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As if parents did not already have enough to worry about with drugs and alcohol, synthetic marijuana is a growing concern. It goes under names like K2, Spice, and Nitro and is readily available for kids to purchase. Many of these products are legally marketed as "herbal incense" or "potpourri" while others are classified alongside heroin and crack cocaine.

For teens, this "natural herb" is something to smoke that will reportedly get them high. If your child is using "legal bud" or "fake weed" products, there is a cause for concern.

Synthetic Marijuana Gaining Popularity

A number of fake weed products remain legal while others are not. Their use has grown since they were first introduced in 2002. They don't trigger a positive result on a urine drug test and are marketed as being "100 percent organic herbs," insinuating that they are natural and completely safe.

Legal, But Not Natural

The truth is, none of the products on the market are completely natural. They all have been found to contain various synthetic cannabinoids. These chemicals are produced in laboratories and the original intention was to help scientists study the cannabinoid system in the human brain.

According to the DEA, the majority of these chemical compounds are produced in Asia with no regulations or standards. They are then smuggled into the U.S. where they are sprinkled onto "plant material," packaged and sold in tobacco shops, convenience stores, and the like.

Some of these chemicals are indeed legal, so far. However, since synthetic cannabinoids first hit the market, over twenty of these compounds are controlled in some way at the federal level.

In 2015, the DEA listed 15 varieties of synthetic marijuana as Schedule I controlled substances in the Drugs of Abuse resource guide. This places them in the same category as heroin, crack cocaine, and marijuana (according to the federal government). At the same time, they noted that over 75 additional compounds have been identified but are not currently controlled.

Street Names

There are countless numbers of products that are being sold as herbal smoking blends, legal bud, herbal smoke, marijuana alternatives, fake weed, or herbal buds. This makes it difficult for parents and other adults to identify them.

Some of the brand names include Blaze, Blueberry Haze, Dank, Demon Passion Smoke, Genie, Hawaiian Hybrid, K2, Magma, Ninja, Nitro, Ono Budz, Panama Red Ball, Puff, Sativah Herbal Smoke, Skunk, Spice, Ultra Chronic and Voodoo Spice.

What Does Fake Weed Look Like?

Synthetic marijuana is a mixture of dried leaves from traditional herbal plants. They are various colors including green, brown, blonde, and red. They are often—though not always—sold in small packets approximately 2 by 3 inches. The packets are foil packs or plastic zip bags.

The Herbs in Legal Bud

Some of the fake marijuana products sold commercially claim to contain herbs traditionally used for medicinal purposes. These include beach bean (Canavalia maritima), blue Egyptian water lily (nymphaea caerulea), dwarf skullcap (scutellaria nana), Indian warrior (pedicularis densiflora), Lion's tail (leonotis leonurus), Indian lotus (nelumbo nucifera), and honeyweed (leonurus sibiricus).

However, one study revealed that some of the herbal ingredients listed by the manufacturers could not be found in the products. As far as we know, some of these products may contain nothing but lawn clippings.

The Chemicals in Synthetic Marijuana

Originally, the fake marijuana products contained a chemical called HU-210, which has a molecular structure very similar to THC—the active ingredient in marijuana. Because HU-210 is listed as a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States, the fake weed products were manufactured and sold only in Europe.

Since then, new synthetic cannabinoid agonists have been created. They are too numerous to list and some are similar in structure to THC, others are not, while some are listed as controlled substances. By using different synthetic marijuana mixtures, manufacturers are able to legally market their products in the United States when another becomes illegal.


While research is advancing, the effect these may have on the human body remains a mystery. To date, few studies have been published testing the effects of the chemicals on users. Within the DEA report, they note overdoses that have caused fatal heart attacks. Similarly, acute kidney injury resulting in hospitalization and dialysis have been connected to these synthetics.

One study compared the level of impairment for drivers who were arrested for intoxicated driving. One group had smoked synthetic cannabinoids and those in the other group were high on marijuana. It found a significant increase in confusion, disorientation, and incoherence in synthetic users. Slurred speech was also noted and this side effect is not normally noted in natural cannabis use.

Even the online stores that promote and sell the legal weed products do so with disclaimers. Among these is wording such as, "we make no claims in regards to the effects of these products on the human body, mind or soul."

Among users of synthetic cannabinoids, the "reviews" are mixed. Some say that it produces a high similar to that of marijuana, but it doesn't last as long. However, other reviewers said the result was more of a relaxed feeling, rather than the "head high" that real marijuana produces.

None of the herbal smoking blends reviewed got great marks for taste. Another reviewer said they were more "harsh" than marijuana and that they "make your throat burn and your lungs ache" long after you smoke.

Long-Term Effects

We simply do not know. Beyond the short-term effects mentioned, an increase in blood pressure, as well as seizures, tremors, and anxiety, have been noted in synthetic marijuana users. Whether any of this will have lasting effects, particularly on the young minds and bodies who often smoke these products, is not yet known. Of course, smoking any substance could have negative effects on the lungs.

We do have a warning from one of the scientists who helped develop the JWH-018 chemical. While studying the effects of pharmaceuticals on the brain, a student of John Huffman, Clemson University research professor of chemistry, discovered the chemical JWH-018. This is also known by the name 1-Pentyl-3-(1-naphthyl)indole and is one of the Schedule I controlled substances listed with the DEA.

"The problem with JWH-018 is that absolutely nothing is known regarding its toxicity or metabolites," Huffman warned. "Therefore, it is potentially dangerous and should not be used."

Educate Your Children About the Dangers

Adolescents may be tempted to use the fake marijuana products. They buy into the idea that they are made up of "natural" ingredients, they are safe, and they are legal.

It is important to educate your children about the hazards of consuming anything that has not been tested. You can do so by letting them know that these fake marijuana products are anything but natural. Does "2-[(1R,3S)-3-hydroxycyclohexyl]-5-(2-methyloctan-2-yl)phenol)" (CP 47,497)" sound natural to you?

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