Updated on February 16, 2018.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Everyone’s always looking for a better way to do things, and producing medicine is no exception. When scientists began to explore the true medicinal benefits of the cannabis plant, some cultivators honed their breeding process to make marijuana that contained more uniform ingredients and potency.
Others worked to produce something that was like marijuana but could be legally sold to the party crowd and recreational users. That product became known as synthetic marijuana — but it doesn’t live up to the hype. Synthetic marijuana is not undetectable, safe or anything like marijuana, really.
What Is Synthetic Marijuana?
Marijuana is a plant that was used for medicinal purposes in many cultures dating back centuries. The plant is relatively easy to grow and can be cultivated indoors or out. The leaves and buds of the cannabis plant can be dried, chopped, rolled and smoked without special processing or equipment. The only problem is that in the United States, marijuana is illegal.
Synthetic marijuana is an attempt to get around the law and sell a product that capitalizes on the popularity of cannabis. With many illegal drugs that are cooked up from various chemical compounds, manufacturers can skirt the law by altering their recipe — a couple molecules different in the formula and they’re no longer dealing with a substance that’s specifically prohibited by law.
Several different products are marketed as synthetic marijuana in various head shops. The labeling typically claims they’re just like marijuana but legal to possess and use. They purport to offer the same type of high with few if any side effects. Perhaps most importantly, synthetic marijuana claims to be untraceable in drug tests, unlike true cannabis products.
How Is Synthetic Marijuana Made?
There’s some speculation about how synthetic marijuana is made. Each producer has a different recipe that can vary from batch to batch. As one chemical compound is banned by the FDA, the recipe for synthetic marijuana is changed to include different ingredients.
Synthetic marijuana commonly goes by street names like:
Like other street drugs, synthetic marijuana doesn’t have a uniform standard for ingredients. Synthetic marijuana is made by chopping up a random variety of dried herbs. This mixture of legal plant matter is made to look like natural marijuana but doesn’t contain any cannabis.
What gives synthetic marijuana its kick is the chemical mixture that’s sprayed onto the herbs before it’s sold. Many different chemicals are used to spray the herbs in the making of synthetic marijuana, but none of them are extracted from a cannabis plant.
When spice and K-2 samples are analyzed, many different synthetic cannabinoids can be found, including some prescription drugs. Synthetic cannabinoids are chemicals designed to mimic the active ingredients in cannabis. These chemicals affect the brain in the same areas as marijuana, but the effects they have are very different and often unpredictable.
Research is being done to test the effects of synthetic cannabis on debilitating conditions, like sleep apnea. Though there is no conclusive evidence currently, researchers feel enthusiastic about finding the positive effects of Delta-9 THC, a component of synthetic marijuana.
Benefits of Natural Marijuana Over Synthetic
It’s hard to compare synthetic marijuana with natural marijuana because they’re very different. The only similarity is that they look the same — most synthetic marijuana is dried greens made to look like cannabis. This substance can be rolled in papers or smoked in a pipe, just like natural marijuana.
Natural marijuana has health benefits synthetic marijuana can’t duplicate. Although synthetic marijuana latches to the same receptors in your brain, it doesn’t act on them the way natural cannabis does. The effects of synthetic marijuana are unpredictable and could put you in the hospital.
When you buy medical marijuana from a licensed dispensary, you know what you’re getting. The products sold at a licensed dispensary are tested for quality, purity and consistency. Labels on these marijuana products accurately represent the amount of THC in the product to assist you with proper dosing.
The hybrid cannabis available at licensed dispensaries is created specifically to highlight certain healing properties. When you bring your doctor’s recommendation to the dispensary, they can usually pinpoint a strain of cannabis that doses only what you need it to do without any extraneous effects.
Synthetic marijuana simply doesn’t offer the same customizable opportunities as natural marijuana. The manufacturers of synthetic marijuana don’t include ingredients on the label. Many of them are probably unsure of the effects their product can have, and their labs are not tested to independently verify the quality of their product.
Cannabis is actually a very complex plant with many healing properties that haven’t been tested yet. From the three original strains of cannabis, hundreds of hybrids were created.
If you live in a medically legal state, the best way to understand the healing properties of cannabis is to see a marijuana doctor. You can find a marijuana doctor in your area by using our exclusive search feature.
A doctor who’s experienced in making marijuana recommendations for their patients will begin by assessing your unique situation and health profile. Based on your medical history and current condition, the doctor can explain your treatment options, including medical marijuana if it’s warranted. The physician can even help you find the strain that’s right for your specific condition.
With a recommendation from your doctor, you can go to the dispensary nearest you and find the right products. The staff at a state-licensed dispensary is usually knowledgeable about the products they carry. You can learn a lot about the different means of administering marijuana therapy and how different strains of cannabis are used.