Synthetic cannabinoids are solids or oils which can be added to dried herbs, vegetable matter or plant cuttings. Essentially, they are chemicals designed in a laboratory which gained their name because their use and effects are comparable to those of cannabis, a drug made from a naturally occurring plant. They are most commonly ingested via smoking, either by mixing them with tobacco and rolling them into a ‘joint’ or ‘spliff’, or by using a pipe called a ‘bong’. In some cases they are prepared as a herbal infusion and are consumed by drinking. They can be packaged and sold legally in the UK as a smoking mixture, often in small colourful sachets, with a warning stating they are “not for human consumption”. There are many different brands with a variety of street names like ‘Spice’, ‘Mary Joy’1 or ‘K2’ which sell the same or similar synthetic cannabinoids.
Synthetic cannabinoids are thought to act on the same receptors in the brain as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive chemical found in cannabis. The reported effects are therefore similar to cannabis but are widely varied; from feeling relaxed, giggly, extremely hungry and talkative to being drowsy, paranoid, forgetful or hallucinating.
Although in the UK some forms of the drug are classed as legal, the dangers associated with synthetic cannabinoid use are numerous. As with cannabis, regular use can increase the later risk of developing psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia. There may be physical side effects after use such as increased heart rate, restlessness, nausea, vomiting and drowsiness as well as psychological consequences like panic attacks and hallucinations. The synthetic compounds may bind more strongly to receptors in the brain than natural cannabis, leading to a more powerful and prolonged effect. With repeated use there may be the risk of both physical and psychological addiction.
Along with these health risks, synthetic cannabinoid use can lead to legal trouble. Some strands such as ‘Black Mamba’ and ‘Annihilation’ are Class B drugs – making them illegal to possess, give away or sell. Getting caught with illegal synthetic cannabinoids can lead to a police caution, an unlimited fine, or years in jail. Driving under the influence of drugs can also lead to fines, disqualification from driving, or prison.
The main overall danger is that the production of synthetic cannabinoids lacks regulation and research. This means that no two packets are the same and the information on the label cannot be trusted, with some reportedly containing illegal cannabinoids or no synthetic cannabinoids at all. The strength and makeup of the compounds are changing constantly so you cannot be sure exactly what you are buying, making the potential health or social impacts dangerous and unpredictable.
If someone has a serious problem they may experience withdrawal symptoms when they go without synthetic cannabinoids. The reported withdrawal symptoms include irritability, change in mood, decrease in appetite, weight loss, difficulty sleeping, shaking, sweating and diarrhoea which are important signs to look out for. However, it may be possible to spot someone becoming dependent before they reach this point. Look out for a need to use the drug regularly; failed attempts to stop using; or engaging in activities which appear out of character, like stealing in association with the drug use. It is common for people to be in denial or not realise the extent of their problem, so noticing these changes in behaviour and reaching out to them can be key.
If you think you or someone you know may have a problem with synthetic cannabinoids, contact us for help and support. Triage Healthcare are staffed by professional addiction counsellors, nurses and doctors who can provide a confidential telephone assessment and offer information on a variety of treatment options tailored to your needs.
We’re available from 9am to 9pm every day of the week on 0845 370 0102. We know that the road to recovery can be daunting but we hope that seeking assistance from Triage Healthcare will be the first important step on your way.