Synthetic cannabinoids are mostly made entirely or partially chemically and their use involves serious health risks. Common synthetic cannabinoids include e.g. HHC, JWH, dronabinol and nabilone. This article discusses the topic of what synthetic cannabinoids are and what their most common effects, side effects, risks and legislation are.
Synthetic cannabis is a term that more specifically refers to synthetically produced cannabinoids, i.e. chemical compounds designed to mimic the natural cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. The vast majority of synthetic cannabinoids have been developed in a laboratory and are often dangerous and can cause serious side effects.
The study of cannabinoids has increased in recent years, and especially drugs based on the metabolic reactions of cannabinoids have been central in the experiments. Synthetic cannabinoids are one of the most important groups of drugs that researchers have used in drug development. Synthetic cannabinoids have been used in clinical trials, e.g. for the reason that they enable precise dosing and control in relation to the metabolism of cannabinoids. However, this does not mean that synthetic cannabinoids are better alternatives for humans than natural ones.
In the early 2000s, synthetic cannabinoids became popular conversion drugs in the world, which are sold illegally and in some places also legally. The products entered the market e.g. under the brand names “K2” and “Spice”. Their popularity was largely based on legality and the fact that they cannot be detected or searched for with traditional drug tests. According to research, the effects of synthetic cannabis can be up to 2-100 times stronger than the intoxicating THC found naturally in the cannabis plant. (1)
Human experiences and clinical trials have proven that some synthetic cannabinoids have pain-relieving properties, as well as spasms, inflammation and cancer growth inhibition (1). However, you shouldn’t get too excited about the positive effects alone, because synthetic cannabis causes life-threatening situations at worst (4).
The disadvantages of synthetic cannabinoids
The use of synthetic cannabinoids, also known as conversion drugs, can be associated with great risks and it has been scientifically proven that they cause adverse effects on humans. Adverse effects include e.g. anxiety, nausea, shortness of breath, cognitive impairment, psychosis, difficulty breathing, suicidal ideation, chest pain, high blood pressure, and acute renal failure. Synthetic substances may also have harmful long-term effects, of which more will be known as research progresses. (1)
Synthetic cannabinoids can be so-called full agonists, i.e. they can attach to the body’s cannabinoid receptors completely, causing very strong and at worst life-threatening effects. On the other hand, natural cannabinoids only partially attach to the receptors and are therefore safer alternatives.
Although there are many different types of synthetic cannabinoids, in this article we will focus mainly on the three that are common and are known as HHC, JWH and dronabinol.
HHC ( Hexahydrocannabinol i ) is a form of the synthetic cannabinoid, which is a derivative of the intoxicating THC found naturally in the cannabis plantderivative of . It is not a completely new thing, as the American chemist Roger Adams synthesized HHC for the first time already in the 1940s. However, its commercialization only happened decades later. (2)
The reason why HHC products have been introduced to the market lies probably in the fact that entrepreneurs in the field have wanted to make money with legal “cannabis products”, which are not prohibited by the UN Narcotics Convention. Each country would have to either ban HHC as a narcotic or regulate it in some other way. (2)
The effect of HHC has been described as similar to THC, producing psychoactive effects, allowing the user to experience strong euphoria, i.e. a feeling of well-being and relaxation. Like THC, HHC also increases appetite. According to experience, the effect of HHC is thought to be a little milder than THC, but in the comparison it is important to note that THC is very rarely used directly in its isolated form. In practice, THC is one of the natural cannabinoids that act in the cannabis plant, some of which are, on the contrary, antipsychotic and therefore balance and even reverse the effects of THC. The plant’s natural amount of THC also varies greatly between different varieties, and the cultivation method also plays a role in the formation of concentrations. For this reason, comparing the effects of HHC and THC depends on many different factors.
The legality of HHC varies by country and it is legally available in at least many European countries and the United States. Although the popularity of HHC has spread widely to several different countries, e.g. Finland and Estonia are countries where HHC is classified as a prohibited substance, and its use is not as popular as in several other countries. In Sweden, HHC is legal, at least for now. There are many types of HHC products on the market, and it is added to, for example, sweets, e-cigarette liquids, industrial hemp blooms and many other familiar consumer products. (2)
The disadvantages and uncertainty of HHC are also increased by the fact that the products do not necessarily have any kind of quality control, in which case unwanted harmful chemicals may be found in the final product. HHC can also be chemically produced from non-intoxicating hemp and for that reason it can also be called a semi-synthetic cannabinoid. (2)
JWH (JWH-018 and JWH -073) are classified as my synthetic cannabinoids, which are designed to mimic the natural cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. Its use can cause several side effects, such as nausea, dizziness and drowsiness. It can also cause other serious health problems, such as stomach upsets and cerebrovascular disorders.
Dronabinol (dronabinol) is a synthetic THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, which was approved by the FDA in 1985 for the treatment of HIV and AIDS-induced anorexia and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting in patients unresponsive to conventional antiemetics. (3) This synthetic version of THC is better known by its trade names Marinol, Syndros, Reduvo and Adversa .
The most common side effects of dropanol are nausea, vomiting. dizziness, stomach pain, drowsiness, paranoia and abnormal thoughts. (3)
The use of dronabinol can also cause cognitive changes and even cause mental or physical disability. In addition, it can cause seizures in those who are prone to such. Dronabinol can be dangerous for people with heart disease and cause neurodynamic instability related to blood flow in the body. Symptoms may include fainting, too fast heart rate, sudden drop or rise in blood pressure. (3)
Synthetic cannabinoids can also cause more sensitive so-called cannabis psychosis, which can be accompanied by intense anxiety, fear and suicidal thoughts in addition to sensory disturbances. Synthetic cannabis can be up to 100 times stronger than natural cannabis, and its risks to mental health are also significantly greater. (1)
Synthetic cannabis can be life-threatening
The use of synthetic cannabinoids has increased in recent years, gaining attention not only in medical research but also in illicit use. Cases are known around the world where synthetic cannabinoids have even caused deaths. For this reason, among others, many countries have started to ban the use and production of synthetic cannabinoids. (4)
Can synthetic cannabis show up in the blood?
A user of natural cannabis may end up in a situation where, due to use, they have to undergo drug tests and be excluded from working life, even if they never use cannabis during working hours. A positive drug test may also prevent e.g. access to therapy or different treatments.
How long does synthetic cannabis last in urine or blood? Currently, synthetic cannabinoids are not tested in blood or urine at all. It is known that hin fear of screening, some cannabis users switch to synthetic cannabinoids, as they are currently not tested in blood or urine at all. (1)
Reflections on the effects of the prohibition law on conversion drugs
The cannabis prohibition law is certainly part of the reason why synthetic cannabinoids have become more common in the illegal market as well. Synthetic cannabinoids are usually significantly cheaper and many times stronger alternatives to natural cannabis. In addition, their use is not looked for in drug screenings, which makes them the only option for many due to the fear of being caught. For the same reason, also in traffic, for example, many people may drive heavily intoxicated by synthetic drugs without any fear of punishment for drunk driving.
By reforming and regulating the Cannabis Act, one could presumably also reduce the problems caused by synthetic cannabinoids. Interest in synthetic substances might decrease if legal and natural cannabis were more easily, cheaply and safely available with proper quality control. At the moment, in countries where cannabis is illegal, its street market is completely wild and buyers often do not know exactly what or what strength of product they have purchased.
Regulation could also affect the strength and characteristics of the products on the market. Roughly summarized, the more antipsychotic and sedative CBD ( cannabidiol ) cannabis contains, the less adverse effects and health risks of the intoxicating THC . CBD seems to cancel out and balance the effects of THC. Often, illegal growers aim for a high THC content, ignoring CBD, which can cause psychological problems. In the case of legal products, an upper limit for the amount of THC could be decided, for example, and at the same time care should be taken that the balancing CBD content would be high enough.
Synthetic cannabinoids are chemical compounds whose use can cause serious side effects, so they should only be used in medical research. It is important that people understand the potential side effects of synthetic cannabinoids so that they can avoid using them for illegal purposes.
The most common synthetic cannabinoids are Dronabinol, JWH and Hexahydrocannabinol (HHC). Unlike natural plant-derived cannabinoids, synthetic cannabinoids can be full agonists and bind to the body’s receptors completely, whereas natural ones only partially bind, being safer alternatives. Synthetic cannabis does not show up in a blood or urine test, because currently the tests do not screen them at all. Regulation of legal cannabis could potentially reduce the attractiveness and health hazards of synthetic substances.
- Castaneto MS et al. 2014. Pubmed. Synthetic cannabinoids: epidemiology, pharmacodynamics, and clinical implications. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25220897/ . Referenced 10/10/2023
- Leppänen M.. YLE. 2023. A new “legal cloud” spreads in Europe – Finland banned the sale. https://yle.fi/a/74-20024773 . Referenced 10/10/2023
- O’Donnell B. et al. 2022. National Library of Medicine. Dronabinol. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557531/. Referenced 10/10/2023.
- Roy EA 2018. The Guardian. Synthetic cannabis deaths spike in New Zealand, igniting legalization debate. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/27/synthetic-cannabis-deaths-new-zealand-legalisation-debate. Referenced 10/10/2023