Explainer: What is the difference between synthetic marijuana and natural marijuana?

This synthetic marijuana paraphernalia was seized from a Denver SunMart in 2012. (Photo: Denver Police)

This synthetic marijuana paraphernalia was seized from a Denver SunMart in 2012. (Photo: Denver Police)

DENVER — As dozens of Coloradans continue to be hospitalized after adverse reactions to synthetic marijuana, one question keeps coming up:

What exactly is synthetic marijuana?

As many legal pot supporters have pointed out, the synthetic stuff is chemically not marijuana at all. “Synthetic marijuana” is a term for non-cannabis herbs coated with man-made chemicals that attempt to mimic the effects of THC, the main psychoactive constituent of natural cannabis. There’s even some debate as to whether the term “synthetic” is accurate, since the active chemicals are not recreations of natural THC – they are cannabinoids that merely mimic the biological effects.

However, “synthetic marijuana” or “synthetic cannabinoid” continue to be the most widely accepted terms for these drugs, and the terms used by governmental agencies.

Synthetic marijuana is a designer drug. Often, designer drugs are created when companies tweak the chemistry of existing drugs just enough to skirt drug laws and fool urine tests – at least until lawmakers can catch up. In this way, synthetic marijuana is similar to the designer drugs called “bath salts” — synthetic marijuana is designed to give users a pot-like high, while bath salts aim to mimic the effects of methamphetamine.

According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, some users of synthetic marijuana experience “a fast, racing heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, and nausea.” In addition, research found that the chemicals in synthetic marijuana “are three to five times more potent than THC found in marijuana,” leading to symptoms, including “loss of consciousness, paranoia, and, occasionally, psychotic episodes.”

A toxicologist at the Missouri Regional Poison Center conducted a study on the effects of synthetic marijuana on humans. He observed more than 30 instances in which teenagers had negative reactions after using the substances, including harmful effects on the “cardiovascular and central nervous systems.” Several people have either died or almost died after using the drugs.

The Drug Enforcement Administration schedules many common ingredients in synthetic marijuana as controlled substances. Many of the products remain illegal in Colorado, even after the passage of Amendment 64. But this doesn’t keep companies from churning out similar substances, nor does it keep users from simply buying synthetic marijuana illegally.