What are Synthetic cannabinoids?

Synthetic cannabinoids are human-made chemicals functionally similar to delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that is the active component of cannabis.

Synthetic cannabinoids do not originate from the plants, and they are full agonists of cannabinoid receptors with biologically active metabolites1. These cannabinoids represent a relatively new group of designer drugs that are considered as popular alternatives to marijuana.

First synthetic cannabinoids were detected in herbal smoking mixtures in late 2008. They were known as Spice Silver and Yucatan Fire. Then many other products appeared. Modern synthetic cannabinoids do not contain tobacco or cannabis, but when smoked, they produce effects similar to those of cannabis2.

These days the compounds of synthetic cannabinoids are usually sprayed on herbal mixtures and are known as spice, herbal incense, or K2. You can also find other names for synthetic cannabinoids – “legal highs”3.

Some scientists say that synthetic cannabinoids are more potent than THC3.

Route of administration

Smoking is the most common route of administration. However, they can also be consumed orally or even rectally. Users may mix the sprayed plant material with marijuana or brew it as tea. Some individuals like to add these synthetic compounds to e-cigarette liquids. There are even known situations when they were added to air freshners1.

Typical users

According to statistical data of the American Association of Poison Control Centers, the typical users of synthetic cannabinoids are adolescent males and young men in their mid-20s. Most often, they state that the reasons for the use of these compounds include curiosity, relaxation, and attaining the desired effects of THC but avoiding its toxicity3. Nevertheless, more than 95 % of synthetic cannabinoid users reported the previous use of cannabis for recreation1.


Synthetic cannabinoids may have various adverse effects. Some studies show that they may be associated with psychosis, agitation, seizures, hypertension, tachycardia, and myocardial infarction4. However, other findings show that these effects vary with dose, product composition, individual susceptibility, and combination with other drugs or supplements1.

Because the chemical composition of synthetic cannabinoids is not fully known, and it varies according to batches, these products may contain substances that cause quite different effects.

However, there is no accurate data on the nature and amount of product used by patients that lead to inaccurate evaluations. According to other studies, synthetic cannabinoid users report shorter duration and time to peak effect relative to THC1.

Most experts agree that more research is needed to identify which contaminants are characterized as synthetic cannabinoid components and to describe their interactions. Only full statistical and scientific investigations can show adverse health effects and predict them.




  1. Antoniou T, Juurlink DN. Synthetic cannabinoids. CMAJ Can Med Assoc J. 2014;186(3):210. doi:10.1503/cmaj.130510
  2. EMCDDA | Synthetic cannabinoids and “Spice” profile (chemistry, effects, other names, synthesis, mode of use, pharmacology, medical use, control status). http://www.emcdda.europa.eu/publications/drug-profiles/synthetic-cannabinoids. Accessed December 4, 2019.
  3. Seely KA, Lapoint J, Moran JH, Fattore L. Spice drugs are more than harmless herbal blends: a review of the pharmacology and toxicology of synthetic cannabinoids. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2012;39(2):234-243. doi:10.1016/j.pnpbp.2012.04.017
  4. Castellanos D, Thornton G. Synthetic cannabinoid use: recognition and management. J Psychiatr Pract. 2012;18(2):86-93. doi:10.1097/01.pra.0000413274.09305.9c


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