The Pros & Cons of Synthetic Cannabis

byeearlenbaugh5 minutes

The global and national cannabis movement is rolling full steam ahead, and scientists are jumping on board to study the controversial medicine. Still, as some researchers are delving further into understanding the natural, biological cannabis plant, others are working on a different project: creating synthetic cannabinoids.

These man-made chemicals bind to the same receptors in the brain that natural cannabinoids do, but they can be quite different when it comes to both their chemical structure and their overall effects. While these synthetic cannabinoids are often marketed as healthy and legal alternatives to marijuana itself, they can have deadly consequences.

Spice & K2: Dangerous Designer Drugs

The news right now is full of stories recounting unfortunate deaths from synthetic cannabinoids. It’s important to know that when it comes to synthetic cannabis, there are two basic classes:

  • Prescription medications designed by pharmaceutical companies for human consumption
  • Designer drugs sold online or in smoke shops as a “legal” alternative to cannabis

The designer drugs are both the easiest to access and the most dangerous options available. They’re the drugs responsible for the death toll currently being reported in the media.

This class of synthetic cannabinoids isn’t one specific drug, but usually a blend of different chemicals. The chemicals are sprayed onto dried herbs and sold as “incense blends” under names like Spice or K2. Some of these chemicals are synthetic cannabinoids designed by researchers without human consumption in mind. The other chemicals might be anything from synthetic opioids or hallucinogens to the rat poison recently discovered in a Spice blend sold in Illinois.

The supposed benefits of this product are a legal high that won’t show up on a drug test. These blends usually advertise themselves as a legal alternative to cannabis. And since they’re widely available, many believe they’re safe.

Unfortunately, this assumption of safety couldn’t be more wrong. Unlike natural cannabis, which have never caused a death by overdose, synthetic cannabinoids can definitely cause a deadly overdose. Some have already died using this class of drugs.

To ensure that the products stay “legal,” producers are continually changing the chemicals in these blends. While this allows for continued accessibility—and makes it difficult for drug testing to pick up on their presence in someone’s system, it also means that each new pack of synthetic cannabinoids can have new dangerous side effects and interactions. For those using them, it’s like playing a game of Russian roulette.

Some packs of synthetic cannabis may give negative side effects like:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Agitation
  • Aggression
  • Tachycardia

Synthetic cannabis may also cause more serious problems like:

  • Stroke
  • Seizures
  • Kidney injury
  • Death

Marinol, Sativex & Cesamet: Synthetic Cannabinoid Medicines

Another class of synthetic cannabinoids comprise highly developed drugs designed by pharmaceutical companies to be medicine. The aim of these products is usually to take some benefit of natural cannabis and translate it into a synthetic medicine that can be manufactured with consistency. This way, it can also pass all of the legal requirements to become a prescription drug.

While whole-plant cannabis is used by many for its natural healing properties, it comes in so many varieties and variations that researchers have had a hard time pushing it through the regulatory hoops that govern prescription drug approval in most counties. Synthetic medicines, on the other hand, can be easily replicated with consistency as well as patented (which gives drug companies motivation to research them in the first place).

In Canada, there are three synthetic cannabis prescription options that are approved as prescription drugs:

  • Marinol
  • Sativex
  • Cesamet

Far from the dangerous situation that we’re seeing with designer drugs like Spice and K2, these medicines have passed through the same safety process as all of our prescription drugs have.

These synthetic prescriptions offer the benefit of being a fully legal medicine that your doctor can prescribe if it might benefit you. Still, while these synthetic treatments have shown themselves to be efficacious for their intended purposes, many patients report a preference for natural cannabis products.

Comparing Synthetic Cannabinoids to Natural Cannabis

It’s hard to say exactly why patients continue to show a preference for natural cannabis when drugs designed for their specific medical needs are available. But there are some good theories about why this would be the case.

The most compelling reason for preferring cannabis is what’s known as the “entourage effect.” Cannabis doesn’t contain just one chemical; it’s a blend of many different natural cannabinoids and terpenes. These each have their own individual effects, but they also interact with each other and work together, modulating these effects in unique ways. Often patients report that these blends are more effective and have fewer side effects than cannabinoids that are isolated and used by themselves.


While scientists in the last 50 years have tried to capture the benefits in marijuana synthetically, they haven’t quite caught up to Mother Nature and the thousands of years that humans have selectively bred cannabis for its medicinal properties. Unfortunately, most synthetic cannabinoids are focused on replicating tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or cannabidiol (CBD), the two most commonly researched cannabis compounds. Their effects tend to fall more in line with isolated cannabinoids than the effects you would find from using whole-plant cannabis. While some prefer synthetic medications for their consistency, for many, natural cannabis simply works better.

What’s the best choice for you? Only you and your doctor can decide whether prescription synthetic cannabinoids or natural whole-plant cannabis options are best suited to your needs. But one thing’s for sure: Stay away from Spice, K2 or any other cannabis alternative you find at the corner store. Experimenting with this type of synthetic cannabinoids could have deadly consequences.

Photo credit: Brandon Giesbrecht