Synthetic Marijuana Abuse & Addiction Effects, Signs & Symptoms

At Mount Regis Center, we offer an intensive, evidence based approach to synthetic marijuana use disorder treatment. We offer a variety of therapeutic interventions that help our clients build a strong foundation for long-term recovery.

Understanding Synthetic Marijuana

Learn about synthetic marijuana abuse and substance use disorder

Synthetic marijuana, also known as K2 and spice has recently been gaining a lot of media attention with the reports of hospitalizations, overdoses, and even deaths that have been occurring as a result of using this substance. Despite the federal ban placed on the substance in 2012, the production and distribution of synthetic marijuana seems to have only increased.

In its purest form, the synthetic chemical compounds that make up this drugs are made up of oils or solids. This chemical compound is then sprayed onto a mixture of dried herbs and spices before being distributed. Originally marketed as potpourri synthetic marijuana is used just like traditional marijuana through smoking, inhaling, or ingesting it. The high that individuals receive from using this drug begins immediately after the substance enters the brain and typically lasts for 1-3 hours. While synthetic marijuana has been consistently marketed as a “safe” substitute for illegal drugs, there is absolutely nothing safe about this substance.

One aspect that makes this substance particularly worrisome is that no one knows for sure what the chemical compounds actually consist of. The formulations of the chemicals that are used in developing these compounds are not consistent. Meaning that you never really know what toxic substances you are putting into your body. One individual may use this drug and achieve the desired high, while another can take only one hit and instantly fall into a coma.

If you or someone you love have developed a dependence on synthetic marijuana it is important that you seek treatment as soon as possible. The earlier you seek treatment the higher the possibility that you avoid some of these serious negative side effects.


Synthetic marijuana abuse statistics

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, spice is the second most frequently used illegal drug among high seniors after marijuana. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that, in 2012, male high school seniors were twice as likely as female students to use synthetic marijuana.

Despite the previously mentioned federal ban, recent reports have been consistently popping up showing the tragic results that this potent substance can have on its users. Between January and June of 2014 alone, poison centers throughout the United States reported receiving nearly 800 cases of synthetic marijuana exposures. Additionally, in March of 2014, over 100 people were treated for synthetic marijuana overdoses over the course of two weeks in Louisiana, and, over a 5-day period in May of 2014, 120 people throughout the state of Texas overdosed on the substance. Research on national statistics regarding use of the drug and still being conducted.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for synthetic marijuana abuse

Due to the complicated nature of synthetic drugs there is still a large amount of research that needs to be done in order to provide more accurate results on the causes and risk factors that lead an individual to begin using this substance. The most commonly cited hypotheses, however, include:

Genetic: It is commonly known that addiction in general has a strong genetic component because substance addiction runs in families. Additionally, genetics play a role in the development of an individual’s personality and temperament, both of which can lead one to begin using various drugs, including synthetic marijuana.

Physical: There are currently ongoing scientific studies being conducted on the effects that spice has on the human brain. However, researchers have stated that the cannabinoid compounds that K2 products consist of act on the same cell receptors in the brain that THC (which is the primary psychoactive element of marijuana) does. With synthetic marijuana, however, the composition of these compounds are believed to bind more strongly to the brain’s cell receptors, leading to much more powerful and unpredictable results.

Environmental: Environmental factors can play an enormous role in whether or not a person will begin experimenting with drug use. More specifically, those individuals who grow up in chaotic home environments may begin using psychoactive substances as a way to escape the reality of the unstable world around them. Additionally, individuals who have suffered from various forms of trauma or abuse are also more likely to use substances as a way to numb themselves from their emotional pain.

Risk Factors:

  • Exposed to chaotic, hectic home / work / school lives
  • Lack of parental involvement
  • Family history of drug use and addiction
  • Being of younger age
  • Being male
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Personal history of mental illness
  • Exposure to crime and violence
  • Exposure to drug use

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of synthetic marijuana abuse

Since there are a large variety of chemical compounds that go in to creating synthetic marijuana, the way in which symptoms are displayed vary greatly. The following are a few examples of symptoms that have been reported in those who abuse synthetic marijuana:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Sudden, extreme stints of hyperactivity
  • Sudden, extreme stints of lethargy
  • Sudden, unprovoked, and extreme angry outbursts
  • Physical aggression

Physical symptoms:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Chest pains
  • Muscle spasms
  • Reduced or elevated blood pressure
  • Headaches
  • Panic attacks
  • Nausea
  • Feeling unusually sleepy
  • Seizures

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Paranoia
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusion
  • Altered perceptions
  • Depersonalization

Psycho-social symptoms:

  • Elevated moods
  • Extreme anxiety
  • Extreme depressive episodes
  • Psychosis


Effects of synthetic marijuana abuse

Since synthetic marijuana is still a fairly new drug, the DEA is still not entirely sure of the long-term side effects and health risks. However, the most devastating effect of spice is sudden, untimely death. Additional effects that are believed to most likely result from chronic K2 abuse include:

  • Family conflict
  • Destruction of interpersonal relationships
  • Inability to hold down a job or be successful at school
  • Irreversible cognitive impairment
  • Heart attack
  • Psychosis
  • Self-harm
  • Stroke
  • Seizure
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Synthetic marijuana abuse & co-occurring disorders

In many cases, individuals who are addicted to drugs like synthetic marijuana are also struggling with a mental health disorder. Some of the mental illnesses that can be associated with the existence of synthetic marijuana abuse can include:

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Conduct disorder

Withdrawal & Overdose

Effects of synthetic marijuana withdrawal and overdose

Effects of synthetic marijuana withdrawal: Prolonged abuse of synthetic marijuana can cause an individual to become physically and psychologically dependent. Once an individual who has become dependent on synthetic marijuana suddenly stops using the drug they will most likely experience withdrawal. This period has been said to last for up to three days and includes the following effects:

  • Hot flashes / cold flashes
  • Addition flu-like symptoms
  • Excessive anxiety
  • Excessive lethargy
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Feelings of hunger, but experiencing an inability to keep food down
  • Violent temper tantrums
  • Isolation
  • Cravings

Effects of synthetic marijuana overdose: With all of the recent reports of synthetic marijuana overdoses, it is important to recognize that overdosing on this substance should be viewed as a medical emergency and treatment should be sought immediately. The symptoms that may indicate that someone has overdosed on spice may include:

  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Stroke
  • Depersonalization
  • Derealization
  • Disorientation
  • Seizures
  • Heart attack
  • Coma
  • Death
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