What to Know About Synthetic Marijuana (Fake Weed) Use
Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Synthetic cannabinoids, also called synthetic marijuana or fake weed, have been used by many as an alternative to marijuana since products were first introduced in 2002. Despite the fact that these man-made products were created in laboratories to help scientists study the cannabinoid system in the human brain, they often claim to be made of “natural” material from a variety of plants.
Hundreds of synthetic cannabinoids exist and the effects can be unpredictable and even life-threatening.
Also Known As: There are countless fake weed products 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.
Drug Class: Synthetic marijuana products are classified as new psychoactive substances (NPS), or unregulated mind-altering substances intended to produce the same effects as illegal drugs.
Common Side Effects: Side effects of the drug include elevated mood, relaxation, altered perception, symptoms of psychosis, extreme anxiety, confusion, paranoia, hallucinations, violent behavior, suicidal thoughts, rapid heart rate, raised blood pressure, vomiting, kidney damage, and seizures.
How to Recognize Fake Weed
Synthetic marijuana often contains a mixture of dried leaves from traditional herbal plants. They are various colors, including green, brown, blonde, and red, and often sold in small packets approximately two by three inches. The packets are often colorful foil packs or plastic zip bags. Some online sellers of legal fake weed products do so with disclaimers like “not for human consumption.”
What Does Synthetic Marijuana Do?
Fake weed works on the same brain cell receptors as THC or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that gets you high). It is typically smoked, brewed in tea, or vaped. Many of these products are legally marketed as “herbal incense” or “potpourri”.
Some people who use herbal buds say that it produces a high similar to that of marijuana, but it doesn’t last as long. Others experience a relaxed feeling, rather than the “head high” that real marijuana produces. Also of note is the “harsh” taste, which people say “makes your throat burn and your lungs ache” long after you smoke.
Since there are no standards for making, packaging, or selling synthetic weed, it’s impossible to know the type and amount of chemicals in each product as well as what the fake weed will do to you.
What the Experts Say
Although they are often marketed as “100% organic herbs,” none of the fake weed products on the market are completely natural. They have all been found to contain various synthetic cannabinoids, or chemicals produced in laboratories.
Originally, fake marijuana products contained a chemical called HU-210, which has a molecular structure very similar to THC. Because HU-210 is listed as a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States, these 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. Some are similar in structure to THC; others are not. Some are classified as controlled substances. By using different synthetic marijuana mixtures, manufacturers are able to continue to legally market their products in the United States when another formulation becomes illegal.
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 United States where they are sprinkled onto “plant material,” packaged and ultimately sold in tobacco shops, convenience stores, and the like.
Some of these chemicals are still legal. However, since synthetic marijuana first hit the market, more than 20 of these compounds have become controlled in some way at the federal level. At the same time, they noted that more than 75 additional compounds have been identified but are not currently controlled.
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 federal category as heroin, crack cocaine, and marijuana.
Many people buy into the idea that fake marijuana products are safe since the chemicals are “legal” and contain “natural” ingredients. However, this has proven to be false with multiple cases of severe, unexplained bleeding or bruising, and some deaths. Other reports show an increase in emergency room visits due to rapid heart rate, vomiting, violent behavior, suicidal thoughts, kidney damage, and seizures.
Some of the fake marijuana products sold commercially claim to contain herbs traditionally used for medicinal purposes, including:
- 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)
- Honeyweed (leonurus sibiricus)
However, one study revealed that some of the herbal ingredients listed by the manufacturers could not be found in the products.
Beyond the synthetic cannibinoid HU-210, which is used by scientists to identify cannibinoid receptors in the brain and study the effects Δ-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ-9-THC), there are no approved or off-label medical uses for synthetic marijuana.
Common Side Effects
While research is advancing, the effect synthetic marijuana products may have on the human body is largely unknown. 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. The study found a significant increase in confusion, disorientation, and incoherence in the synthetic marijuana group. Slurred speech, a side effect not normally associated with natural cannabis use, was also reported among the synthetic cannabinoid users.
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 these observed symptoms will have lasting effects, particularly on adolescents and young adult users, is not yet known. Of course, smoking any substance could have negative effects on the lungs.
“The problem with JWH-018 (a synthetic cannabinoid compound) is that absolutely nothing is known regarding its toxicity or metabolites,” says John Huffman, who helped develop the JWH-018 chemical. “Therefore, it is potentially dangerous and should not be used.” JWH-018 is also known as 1-Pentyl-3-(1-naphthyl) indole and is one of the Schedule I controlled substances listed with the DEA.
Recently, a version of synthetic marijuana was laced with rat poison, causing uncontrolled bleeding in hundreds of people and killing several others who ingested the tainted products.
If you or a loved one has used synthetic marijuana and begin experiencing severe, unexplained bleeding or bruising, call 911 or asked a loved one to take you to the hospital immediately. These are all signs of contaminated cannabinoid products.
Signs of Use
If you are a parent of a young adult, it pays to know the behaviors and physical effects of using fake weed. While exhibiting one or two of these signs might not mean that your child is using, they are all strong indicators of drug use and should be taken seriously.
- Burning incense
- Buying or using eye drops
- Possessing dried plants or herbs
- Having rolling papers or vape pens
- Receiving suspicious packages in the mail
- Displaying unusual or secretive behaviors
- Red or irritated eyes
- Pale complexion
- Acting confused
Myths and Common Questions
Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about herbal bud is that it is “natural marijuana.” It is not; it is created from any of several hundred man-made synthetic chemicals that are sprayed onto the chopped plant material.
Synthetic marijuana is also far more potent, containing TCH analogs or synthetic cannabinoids that can be up to 600 times more potent than THC found in marijuana. Often, additives, toxic impurities, and other types of drugs are also found in fake weed products.
Tolerance, Dependence, and Withdrawal
Regularly using “fake weed” can result in increased tolerance, or needing more and more of the drug to experience the same high. If you regularly use synthetic cannabinoids, you can also become both physically and psychologically dependent. This means if you stop abruptly, you’ll likely experience withdrawal symptoms.
Since the chemical composition of fake weed is unknown and can change from batch to batch, tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal may also vary.
How Long Does Fake Weed Stay in Your System?
How long synthetic cannabinoids stay in your system depends on several factors, including the type, how it is administered (i.e., inhaled or ingested), amount consumed, and frequency of use. Since these synthetic drugs don’t trigger a positive result on most standard urine drug tests , many people turn to these drugs in an attempt to avoid positive drug screens for employment, rehab, or legal reasons.
Long-term, regular use of synthetic cannabinoids can lead to addiction. If you have a history of mental illness or a substance use disorder, the risk of addiction is even greater.
In addition to building up a tolerance and experiencing symptoms of withdrawal, other signs of synthetic cannabinoid addiction can include:
- You use more than intended, even after telling yourself that you’ll only “take a few hits.”
- You are unable to cut down or stop and have likely failed numerous times at quitting.
- You spend lots of time getting high, often at the expense of spending time with loved ones or doing activities you once enjoyed.
- You continue to use despite any problems with family and friends, employment, or legal troubles.
- You depend on the drug to “relax” or for creativity.
Symptoms of synthetic weed withdrawal can range from mild to severe, depending on how frequent and how long you have been using, and include the following:
- Severe anxiety
How to Get Help
If you suspect that someone you love is using synthetic marijuana, the most important thing you can do is spend time with them, communicate the dangers of fake weed, and watch for any signs of use. While behavioral therapies and medications have yet to be specifically tested for the treatment of synthetic cannabinoid addiction, a health care professional can work with you and your loved one to safely detox from the drug as well as identify and treat any co-occurring mental illness.
In addition to getting a recommendation from a trusted health care professional, the Partnership at DrugFree.org has a helpline and tips so families know what to ask when vetting a rehab.
If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.
For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.
Learn what experts have to say about synthetic marijuana or "fake weed" as well as common side effects, myths, signs of use, and risk for addiction.
A User’s Guide to Fake (Cannabis) News
When we started biting our nails over the rise of AI, most of us assumed the incoming robot coup would be a little more exciting than bots lying about cannabis on Twitter. Dubious sources with warm blood and Wi-Fi have done just as much to pollute the discourse around the plant, too: It cures cancer, COVID-19 (coronavirus), it’s laced with fentanyl, Monsanto’s making GMO pot, and of course, every word from Alex Berenson’s mouth to start.
In an industry already rife with misinformation and lacking in widespread clinical research, how does anyone separate fact from fiction?
Defining “Fake News”
“When we use the term in papers, ‘fake news’ is news content that’s completely fabricated but presented as if it’s from a legitimate source… like the pope endorsing Trump,” says Gordon Pennycook, an assistant professor of behavioral science at University of Regina and co-author of a recent paper on stopping the flow of bogus claims on social media.
“Fake news”, “false news”, “alternative facts” – plain old “lies” if you prefer to be straightforward – whichever rings true for you, Pennycook says it helps to draw a distinction between misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation refers to any piece of info that, for one reason or another, is simply incorrect. Disinformation is deliberately false; including everything from phoney news websites meant to mimic real ones (like the now-defunct ABCnews.com.co, and anything else produced by Paul Horner), to “satire” sites with a questionable commitment to the medium. “Like a headline that’s presented as if it’s not a joke, but at the end of the article it says it’s ‘satire’,” explains Pennycook, adding that most readers only engage with headlines before sharing an article. In fact, one study indicated that a worrying amount of content shared between users on social media platforms hasn’t even been clicked.
“Alternative Facts” Hurting The Cannabis Community
While the cannabis community has perhaps one of the richest histories of what we’d now deem fake news (cue Anslinger and co.), modern myths and blatant lies about the plant have made for a colder reception as legalization dawns in many states.
Editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Endocannabinoid Medicine, Dr. Jahan Marcu says not a day goes by that he doesn’t scroll past some bold, disreputable claim making the rounds in headlines and shared posts. “Every day, I open any social media [platform] and there’s something new.”
Marcu says the conversation around cannabis has been so saturated with faulty information that some of the simplest truths about the plant have been twisted. “The biggest one is that CBD is non-psychoactive in how it stimulates cannabinoid receptors,” says Marcu, also the director of experimental pharmacology and behavioral research at the International Research Center on Cannabis and Health. He says many producers have taken liberties with the lack of scientific consensus on the subject of pot, and have contributed to an image of CBD being non-intoxicating and useful in everything from bottled water to acne creams. “I’ve seen so many graphics from the big companies that attribute the benefits of THC to CBD. If it’s altering your cognition in any way, it’s psychoactive.” Marcu points to the many consumers who’ve testified to feeling relaxed or relieved of their anxiety, saying any substance that makes those changes in the body can’t realistically be called “non-psychoactive”.
The say-anything culture around pot leaves the door open for all sorts of head games. “Another is ‘doobies make boobies’,” says Dr. Ian Mitchell, an emergency physician at Royal Inland Hospital in British Columbia and a consultant at Medical Cannabis Resource Centre who recalls a curious tactic by Canadian police as legalization reared its head up north. “Telling male students that growing breasts is a side effect of cannabis.”
Mitchell’s found himself rubbing his temples time and again over the willful ignorance and outright fabrication that permeates the culture; most recently taking slight at the Canadian Medical Association for signal-boosting the Trump-borne assertion that cannabis can be (and frequently, is) a vehicle for hard narcotics like fentanyl. “It’s never happened even once,” Mitchell assures. “They’ve had samples sent off… it’s a physical impossibility to lace cannabis with fentanyl [to get high]. Burning it incinerates the fentanyl entirely.”
Mitchell sees the effects of disinformation in all its shades when he discusses cannabis with patients. “People have been made to believe it causes lung cancer the way tobacco does, which is not supported by evidence.” Mitchell also calls out the attractive marketing ploy of the sativa/indica distinction, which famed cannabis researcher Dr. Ethan Russo called the tactic “total nonsense and an exercise in futility”, urging the scientific community to drop the schtick altogether for the sake of progress and, in some cases, safety.
Higher up the chain of hogwash, the FDA was quick to point the finger at THC-containing vape products at the start of 2019’s vaporizer scare that left many Americans hospitalized, prompting a hasty generalization: “Do not use vaping products that contain THC”. The advice was soon after refuted when research indicated that vitamin E acetate found in shoddy vaping products was more likely the culprit for EVALI.
Cutting Through The Confusion
Pennycook says crowdsourcing has shown promise in stemming the stream of fake facts, with ongoing projects like the Blacklist that collect and curate sensationalist, often clickbait-ish headlines to promote discussion about them within the cannabis community. Assistant professor of media analytics and communication at Elon University, Dr. Kathleen Stansberry says such efforts can go both ways, however.
“Most user generated news sites rely on users both to submit stories and to police content, which means the content on a site is only as good as its users,” she cautions. The administrators of The Blacklist remain decidedly anonymous, which she says makes it difficult to discern any qualifications. “Based on the success of the site and accuracy of the news they share though; it appears they’re well-versed in the cannabis business.”
How To Recognize Fake Cannabis News
High Times spoke with the experts above to build an easy-to-use guide for telling fact from fiction when it comes to fake cannabis news.
1. Be wary of police sources. “One way to know it [might be fake] is if it’s coming from police,” Mitchell advises. Conventional authorities have statistically had little issue with lying to dissuade cannabis use, so approach police sources with extra caution.
2. Read beyond the headline. Easy though it is, don’t turn off your brain when scrolling through your choice of cannabis content. Read the content through till the end. Especially on social media, Pennycook says that when news content is mixed with pictures of dogs and food, it demands a less critical mindset that leaves space for that story about how CBD’s cured cancer to sneak in.
3. Look for a GMP certificate on products. The spirit of fake news lives on in products that oversell their efficacy or don’t do proper testing. “At the minimum, try to find a GMP [Good Manufacturing Practice] certificate,” says Marcu. GMP designations show that a product’s been tested by third parties in a lab setting. “If they’re not doing research into their own products, they’re doing it on you, the consumer.”
4. Investigate the author. “Most credible news sources have a byline,” Stansberry notes. If you can see who’s produced it, give their name a click and see what other sorts of stories they’ve published. If you can’t, that may be a red flag.
5. Read laterally. One of the best tools against disinformation is what Pennycook calls “lateral reading”: “Check out the website, then see if other websites are confirming the same thing,” he suggests. “It’s hard to reconstruct a universe of information.” Take it from only one source, and you’re more likely to get duped.
6. Look for scientific affiliations. With cannabis and its derivative products, Marcu suggests looking for “any company that has an institutional affiliation with scientific boards.” He says if a company doesn’t have a qualified medical advisor, they may not be holding their claims to evidence-based standards. “Use Google Scholar to see if any of these people are published in the field,” he says, stressing that peer-reviewed research is a must.
7. Be aware of your biases. “Check your own biases, and be aware of what you bring to a story,” Stansberry says. Everyone has a pundit in their head, so remember they’re there and try to read the item as objectively as possible.
8. Remember the golden rule. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true,” Mitchell says. Cannabis is many things; but to spare us all another snake-oil phase, consider that the sensational is often just that – sensationalized.
In this age of fake news and alternative facts, how do you distinguish the truth from lies?