Why Synthetic Marijuana Harms Brain More Than Pot

The human brain

Synthetic marijuana is a chemical-plant material mixture that contains synthetic cannabinoids, manmade compounds designed to reach the brain through the same pathway as the main cannabis/marijuana ingredient THC. One of the potential consequences of using synthetic cannabinoids is the onset of psychosis symptoms highly similar to those found in people with the severe mental illness schizophrenia. In a study review published in 2014 in the journal Advances in Dual Diagnosis, a team of Italian and British researchers explored the reasons that use of synthetic marijuana can lead to the onset of schizophrenia-like symptoms.

Synthetic Cannabinoids and Synthetic Marijuana

The THC in marijuana and other forms of cannabis reaches the brain through sites, called cannabinoid receptors, found on the surfaces of certain nerve cells inside the brain. THC only partially activates these receptors, but the effect is enough to produce the mind alteration and other changes in brain/body function classically associated with cannabis use. Synthetic cannabinoids access the brain through the cannabinoid receptors, just like THC. However, unlike naturally occurring THC, these compounds – which typically go by fairly obscure names such as HU-210, PB-22 and JWH-073 – fully activate the cannabinoid receptors. This means that they can potentially produce a drug effect that far exceeds the effects produced by THC.

Synthetic marijuana products contain at least one synthetic cannabinoid, as well as herbs or other plant materials that act as a vehicle for that cannabinoid. Well-known names of these products include K2 and Spice; another product called Smashed has also emerged in parts of the U.S. Because of the circumstances in which synthetic marijuana is made, users don’t really know which synthetic cannabinoid(s) appear in a particular product. This means that synthetic marijuana users inevitably expose themselves to a new set of unknown risks every time they consume a different batch of the drug. Apart from episodes of psychosis, known potential consequences of synthetic marijuana intake include a dangerously accelerated heartbeat, severe blood pressure spikes, highly accelerated breathing, muscle tremors and full-on convulsions or seizures. Public health officials in the U.S. have recorded multiple instances of fatal synthetic marijuana overdoses.


People affected by psychosis have symptoms that seriously degrade their ability to stay anchored in reality. These symptoms may include hallucinations (usually visual or sound-based in nature) and/or delusional, frequently paranoid trains of thought that seem reasonable or plausible only to the affected individual. Less well-known potential symptoms of psychosis include highly disjointed thought patterns and an inability to communicate verbally in an effective manner. Several addictive substances – including cannabis/marijuana, methamphetamine and alcohol – are known for their ability to induce temporary states of psychosis in long-term or heavy users.

Synthetic Marijuana and Psychosis

In the study review published in Advances in Dual Diagnosis, researchers from two Italian universities and the United Kingdom’s University of Hertfordshire conducted an analysis of the recent scientific literature on synthetic marijuana and synthetic cannabinoids. The goal of this analysis was an improved understanding of the mechanisms that link the use of synthetic marijuana/synthetic cannabinoids to the symptoms of psychosis. In addition to studies, the researchers included reports from professional conferences and government agencies in their review.

After completing their analysis, the researchers linked the onset of psychosis in synthetic marijuana users to two main factors: the ability of synthetic cannabinoids to fully activate the brain’s cannabinoid receptors and the intake of at least two forms of synthetic cannabinoid by a single individual. Together, two or more synthetic cannabinoids can trigger a strong multiplying effect that significantly boosts synthetic marijuana’s damaging impact on the brain. This is especially true when an individual (frequently unknowingly) consumes extremely powerful synthetic cannabinoids that far outstrip the mind-altering impact of THC. The researchers coin a term, “Spiceophrenia,” to identify the mental state found in synthetic marijuana users who develop psychosis symptoms.

The study review’s authors note three factors that hinder researchers’ ability to fully determine the psychosis risks associated with synthetic marijuana use: lack of long-term studies on the effects of the drug, lack of clinical trials designed to explore the effects of the drug and the sheer diversity of the chemical compounds that fall under the heading of synthetic cannabinoids. They believe that successful reduction of psychosis episodes in synthetic marijuana users may rely on public health campaigns that emphasize the increased psychosis risks associated with consuming this drug.

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