Chemicals designed to act like the main psychoactive chemical in cannabis
What does it look like?
In their pure form, synthetic cannabinoids are either solids or oils. They are then added to dried herbs, vegetable matter or plant cuttings to make a smoking mixture (so that it looks more like real herbal cannabis).
The most commonly known synthetic cannabinoid is Spice.
The smoking mixtures are packaged in small, often colourful sachets with labels describing the contents as incense or herbal smoking mixture, and usually stating 'not for human consumption'.
There are many different names given to herbal smoking mixtures, some of the most common are listed in the 'Also called' section at the top of the page.
There are many different brand names for smoking mixtures, but it is not uncommon for different brands to contain the same synthetic cannabinoids.
Synthetic cannabinoids are normally used in a similar way to cannabis:
They can be mixed with tobacco, rolled up into a spliff or joint, and then smoked.
They can be smoked without tobacco using a pipe or bong.
As e-cigarettes have become more available, there are reports of some people using e-cig technology for synthetic cannabinoids, and that e-liquids containing synthetic cannabinoids have been produced that can be used with normal e-cigs.
They can also be swallowed, eaten with food or made into a drink.
How does it make you feel?
Since synthetic cannabinoids act like cannabis, the effects - good and bad - are similar. Some users will feel happy and relaxed, may get the giggles, feel hunger pangs and become very talkative. Others mainly feel ill or paranoid.
Because synthetic cannabinoids react more strongly with the brain's cannabis receptors they're more potent than natural cannabis. This means it's easier to use too much and experience unpleasant and harmful effects.
Synthetic cannabinoids act like THC, the active substance in natural cannabis, but are often more potent, so it's easier to use too much and experience unpleasant and harmful effects.
Typical effects include:
Feelings of being happy, euphoric and relaxed, with some people gettings the giggles, feeling hunger pangs and becoming very talkative, while others get more drowsy.
Mood and perception can change, and concentration and coordination may become difficult. Synthetic cannabinoids, possibly because of their potency, are more likely to be associated with hallucinations than natural cannabis.
Some will have quite bad reactions, such as paranoia, panic attacks and forgetfulness.
How long the effects last and the drug stays in your system depends on how much you’ve taken, your size and what other drugs you may have also taken.
Physical health risks
The risks of synthetic cannabinoids are similar to natural cannabis, but because synthetic cannabinoids are more potent, it is easy to use too much and experience the unpleasant and harmful effects. This higher potency also means that the effects may last for longer.
Also, because many synthetic cannabinoids are new, they may have unknown effects too.
We know that there have been a number of deaths that have been associated with the use of synthetic cannabinoids, either on their own or with other substances. There may also be risks from smoking the plant material itself – as occurs with tobacco and cannabis smoking.
Reported side-effects from using synthetic cannabinoids include:
- feelings of lightheadedness, dizziness, confusion and tiredness
- feeling excited, agitated and aggressive
- mood swings
- anxiety and paranoia
- suicidal thoughts
- memory problems and amnesia
- nausea and vomiting
- hot flushes
- increased heart rate and blood pressure, which may cause chest pains and damage your heart and even cause a heart attack
- excessive sweating
- fingers, toes or muscles feel numb and tingly
- tremors, seizures and fits
Other risks for synthetic cannabinoids:
Research suggests that they may be an association between using synthetic cannabinoids and acute kidney injury.
Many synthetic cannabinoids have a chemical structure that is similar to serotonin, a natural chemical found in the body. It’s been suggested that there’s a risk that synthetic cannabinoids could overstimulate the serotonin system (called serotonin syndrome), which can result in high fever, rapid pulse, sweating, agitation, confusion, convulsions, organ failure, coma and even death.
Because of the way that smoking mixtures are made, there can be differences in the concentration of synthetic cannabinoids in individual packets and between different batches. You can never be 100% sure of how powerful a dose you are going to take.
Mental health risks
Synthetic cannabinoids are more likely to be associated with hallucinations than natural cannabis, possibly because of their potency.
Use of synthetic cannabinoids can cause psychotic episodes, which in extreme cases could last for weeks.
Regular use could cause a relapse of mental health illness or increase the risk of developing a mental illness, especially if you have a family history of mental illness.
What is synthetic cannabinoids cut with?
Synthetic cannabinoids are usually sold in 'herbal' smoking mixtures. Sometimes these smoking mixtures have been found not to contain any synthetic cannabinoids at all!
Any dried herbs, vegetable matter or plant cuttings can be mixed or sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids to make smoking mixtures. A number of different plants are often listed on the packaging of smoking mixtures, but these might not actually be present in the mixture.
It's also possible that the dried herbs, vegetable matter or plant cuttings themselves may produce an unwanted effect or be covered in a toxic substance, such as a pesticide, or there may be residues of the solvents, such as acetone and methanol, used in the mixing/spraying process, remaining on the smoking mixture.
There have been a few studies carried out on the level of synthetic cannabinoids present in smoking mixtures which suggest that there can be differences in the concentration of synthetic cannabinoids in between different batches and packets. This could be because the mixing or spraying missed some of the smoking mixture or over-sprayed some of it.
The chemical composition of synthetic cannabinoids and the ingredients of smoking mixtures are changing all the time, so you can never be sure of what you're getting, how powerful it is, and how it could affect you.
Is it dangerous to mix with other drugs?
Mixing synthetic cannabinoids with alcohol or other drugs can be especially dangerous. It can increase the risks of both drugs and can lead to a greater risk of accidents or death.
Also, because synthetic cannabinoids can overstimulate the serotonin system, it is important to avoid mixing them with antidepressants, such as Prozac, as they both stimulate serotonin activity in the brain, which can lead to serotonin syndrome, causing high fever, rapid pulse, sweating, agitation, confusion, convulsions, organ failure, coma and even death.
Can you get addicted?
Research suggests that you can become dependent on synthetic cannabinoids, especially if you use them regularly. Whether or not you’re dependent will be influenced by a number of factors, including how long you've been using it, how much you use and whether you are just more prone to becoming dependent.
If you have used synthetic cannabinoids regularly you could find it difficult to stop using and you might experience psychological and physical withdrawals when you do stop. The withdrawals can include cravings for synthetic cannabinoids, irritability, mood changes, loss of appetite, weight loss, difficulty sleeping and even sweating, shaking and diarrhoea.
Some volatile substances are covered by the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act, which means it’s illegal to give away or sell.
There’s no penalty for possession, unless you’re in prison.
Supply and production can get you up to 7 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both.
Like drink-driving, driving when high is dangerous and illegal. If you’re caught driving under the influence, you may receive a heavy fine, driving ban, or prison sentence.
If the police catch people supplying illegal drugs in a home, club, bar or hostel, they can potentially prosecute the landlord, club owner or any other person concerned in the management of the premises.
Additional law details
Synthetic cannabinoids and the law
- Although some synthetic cannabinoids have been legal in the past, many have been illegal for some time. A large number of synthetic cannabinoids and any mixtures that contain illegal drugs, including brands like Black Mamba and Annihilation, are Class B drugs and are illegal to have, give away or sell.
It’s important to realise that since 26 May 2016, when the Psychoactive Substances Act came into effect, none of these drugs are legal to produce, supply or import (even for personal use, e.g. over the internet) for human consumption.
The synthetic cannabinoids that were made illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act, are still covered by that legislation. All other psychoactive substances not currently covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act now fall under the Psychoactive Substances Act.