What is Synthetic Cannabis?

Created by
Added 29 April 2022

In the mid-1950s, an organic chemistry professor at Clemson University, John William Huffman, set out to study the underlying mechanisms of cannabinoids. For the same, he synthesized hundreds of new cannabinoids.

And in 2008, his research was published to the world. Soon after, a cannabinoid, JWH-018, surfaced in a forensic lab in Germany, and it was named Spice. It was sold to consumers who were looking for a cannabis alternative.

But this move gave rise to a stream of synthetic cannabis — more like fake cannabis that had the potential to affect people with severe side effects.   

Find out all about synthetic cannabis in this article. 

What is Synthetic Cannabis?

Synthetic cannabis

Synthetic cannabis has many other names like synthetic cannabinoids, synncanns, Spice, K2, and SCs. But unlike the perception of the users, it is not a legal synthetic alternative to cannabis like Marinol (synthetic alternative to THC).

Synthetic cannabis tries to do what cannabis does, but it's not FDA approved — it's a Schedule I controlled substance

The name is a misnomer — synthetic cannabis is not cannabis — it's merely a chemical analog that binds to the same CB1 receptors in the brain as cannabis. But unlike THC, which produces a euphoric high, synthetic cannabinoids bind to the receptors to build a different kind of high that is often too strong.

This is because THC has partial efficacy, but synthetic cannabis pushes the receptors to maximum effectiveness — which can have severe side effects on your health. 

For example, synthetic cannabis' high efficacy in the temporal cortex and hippocampus area can cause seizures and memory problems, respectively. 

How is Synthetic Cannabis Made?

Rolling a joint

It initially began as a government study into the mechanism of cannabis but turned into a remnant of the drug war. And the manufacturing process is nothing short of Breaking Bad. 

Typically, the cannabinoids are manufactured in Chinese laboratories and shipped to the Western markets as chemicals or synthetic cannabinoids. The so-called "weed manufacturers" lace various materials like herbal leaves or tobacco with these chemicals, producing synthetic cannabis products.

These manufacturers use reverse extraction with alcohol or acetone solvents, where the chemicals are dissolved into alcohol and sprayed onto the host material.

Later, these products are sold to uninformed users with various cannabis buzzwords like organic herbs, completely natural cannabis, or cannabis substitute. 

The worst thing about this process is that many things can go wrong. First, we don't know what chemicals the manufacturers are using — some can be harmless while others can be toxic to humans.

Second, if the synthetic cannabinoids are not correctly applied to the host material, it can lead to hot spots where the chemicals can be super potent. 

Third, there is no regulation for this drug yet since it's a new drug sold in the disguise of cannabis. Similarly, there is no accurate potency analysis available for synthetic cannabis either.

Due to the unregulated manufacturing process, toxic chemicals used, and its severe side effects (as discussed below), synthetic cannabis is a Schedule I drug — illegal for human use in most countries. Still, sellers skirt the law by labeling their products with a "not for human consumption" sticker.

Why is Synthetic Cannabis Popular?


Image credit - CBDOracle

Synthetic cannabis has some side effects and is illegal, yet many people choose to consume it for the following reasons.

The first is that it's marketed as a cannabis alternative and claimed to be more organic, healthy, or herbal.

Another reason for its popularity is that it does not appear in urine analysis. Despite legalization, many employers still require their employees to take drug tests for cannabis, pushing some employees to resort to synthetic cannabis. 

There is an open market for synthetic cannabis, and anyone can purchase it online without inviting the sheriff to their home. So, synthetic cannabis is prevalent in regions where cannabis is not legalized (yet).

What Does Synthetic Cannabis Feel Like?

fake cannabis

Synthetic cannabis can get you high — there is no doubt about that — but there is no standard high you can expect since the manufacturers' compounds vary.

Still, users claim that the high of synthetic cannabis is much stronger than cannabis, and research backs this claim. For example, synthetic cannabinoids can be nearly 600 times more potent than THC!

Other users report that synthetic cannabis offers a more relaxing high compared to the cerebral cannabis high, and it does not last as long as the latter either.

However, most users report that synthetic cannabis is harsher to smoke despite the relaxing high. In addition, it can make your lungs ache and throat burn. 

Synthetic cannabis offers an intense high while being easy to buy and not showing up in drug tests, but it is still not worth using for anyone. It has the potential for severe side effects and addiction.

Side Effects of Synthetic Cannabis

The worst thing about smoking real cannabis is a mild bad trip that quickly goes away. But the same can't be the same for synthetic cannabis — the users of synthetic cannabis often look like they are on amphetamines, not cannabis.

Synthetic cannabis, more often than not, causes severe side effects in users because the body cannot process and metabolize the chemicals as it can do with natural cannabinoids. 

Common side effects include chest pain, racing heart, nausea, vomiting, vision blackouts, and headaches. But in severe cases, the side effects include high blood pressure, psychosis, kidney damage, and internal bleeding.

The Drug Enforcement Administration of the USA has also reported that synthetic cannabis has caused several fatal heart attacks in users, along with seizures, acute kidney injury, anxiety, and tremors.

Another study even found that synthetic cannabis severe impairment. The researchers compared impairment levels of drivers arrested for DUI, where one group used cannabis and the other used fake weed.

The result showed that synthetic cannabis users were more impaired. Plus, they exhibited a significant increase in disorientation, confusion, and incoherence.

Potential for Dependency or Addiction

Since synthetic cannabis is a relatively new drug, scientists are still figuring out whether the drug is addicting or not. But so far, synthetic cannabis seems to be additive.

Regular use of synthetic cannabis can result in increased tolerance. But due to the intense high, users resort to using more and more of the product to balance out the higher tolerance. 

So, if someone uses synthetic cannabis regularly, they can become dependent on it. They may even experience withdrawal symptoms, ranging from mild to severe — headache, depression, irritability, and bouts of rage.

It's hard to say how addicting this drug is because the composition of synthetic cannabis varies with each manufacturer and compound used.

How to Identify Synthetic Cannabis?

Fake cannabis

If you use cannabis, you must ensure you only buy natural cannabis that is not laced with synthetic compounds. But spotting synthetic cannabis is complicated — even a bushy bud can be laced with it.

Here is a short guide on identifying synthetic cannabis.

Use Your Senses

Your first line of defense is your senses — eyes and nose in particular. Typically, real cannabis is sold as buds, but synthetic cannabis is sold in small foil packs or plastic zip-lock bags. They may even contain a "not for human consumption" sticker on them.

Plus, synthetic weed may look like a mix of different plants like ground-up grass, tobacco, or similar herb. 

You should also smell the packet — natural cannabis has a distinct odor, which synthetic cannabis can not replicate. The latter often has a harsh, chemical smell, or it may smell too strong of tobacco or grass. 

This does not only apply to cannabis buds. Other cannabis products can also be tainted with synthetic cannabis.

In short, if the product looks and smells funky, stay away from it.

Know the Seller

If you buy cannabis from a store, ensure they are licensed to sell cannabis. And stick to reputable sellers only since they get their cannabis products lab tested and show the analysis on their product pages. 

Avoid buying weed from local peddlers, gas stations, or shady smoke shops. There is a high chance they might sell you synthetic cannabis. 

You can even read the reviews from buyers to know if the seller is reliable.

Synthetic cannabis is tricky to identify, but if you know your way around actual cannabis, you can easily identify fake cannabis. 

Summary: What is Synthetic Cannabis?

Synthetic cannabis was believed to be a legal, better alternative to cannabis. But that's not the case. It is responsible for sending hundreds of people to the hospital in a short period, which is why it is not illegal to use.

So, you must stay away from synthetic cannabis at all costs — it is no better than meth or heroin. Only, it is marketed to be safer and more organic than cannabis. 

Look out for side effects like panic attacks, vomiting, chest pains, spasms, hallucinations, delusions, impaired judgment, psychosis, etc.

Call your region's emergency helpline or rush to the hospital if something like this happens. 

But it is best to avoid situations like these in the first place. Always buy your cannabis from reputable sellers (or grow your own) and visually inspect it before consuming it. And avoid taking cannabis from the guy you just met at a house party.


Sort by
Tried it, felt like my body was going into shock, sweating and going pale. It's being mixed into a lot of hashish in Europe.
@Scratchie, that must have been a horrible experience. I have tried local cannabis (I don't know whether it's synthetic or not) but I get panic attacks :(. Never experienced that before. So, I have decided to only stick to home-grown cannabis.