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Synthetic Marijuana: K2/Spice


Cheap, legally manufactured, and widely available, synthetic marijuana — known as K2 or “Spice” — is one of the fastest-growing drugs across the United States, leading to devastating effects for users and their families. Sold as potpourri in corner delis for as little as $5 a packet, the drug circumvents regulation with the label “not for human consumption.” Increasingly, the highly addictive substance has been found in vape cartridges sold as CBD oil, and also in marijuana edibles. Here’s what you need to know about how K2/Spice affects users, and how you can avoid it.

What Exactly Is K2/Spice?

Designed to mimic the effect of cannabis, K2 refers to shredded plant materials that have been sprayed with chemicals that create an instant high. Although often called “synthetic marijuana” or “fake weed,” these terms are misleading. Unlike cannabis, which refers to a naturally growing plant, K2 is a lab-made compound that changes with every batch. Users primarily smoke the product as “joints,” but it also comes in liquid form to be inhaled as vapor. Described as having a “numbing” effect, the drug eliminates all physical and emotional feeling, leaving users unable to stand or speak. When the drug wears off, users describe nausea and a flood of unpleasant emotions.

K2 manufacturers stay one step ahead of lawmakers by constantly altering the chemical makeup, which makes the drug difficult to monitor and even more difficult to regulate. Even after an amendment that added 36 compounds to New York state’s controlled substance list, the drug continues to legally appear in corner bodegas. Sold in packets targeting teens and young adults with names like “Scooby Snax” and “Mr. Happy,” K2 comes in kid-friendly flavors like bubblegum with colorful packaging. With no age regulations, kids as young as 13 are using, with teens among the largest age group for the drug, according to the National Institute of Health.

Names for the drug include:

  • Mr. Nice
  • Mr. Happy
  • Mamba
  • Joker
  • Kronic
  • Krypton
  • Lava Red
  • Bombay Blue
  • Genie

Who’s Using Synthetic Marijuana?

Unfortunately, as an inexpensive and easy-to-obtain drug, synthetic marijuana has is used among wide-ranging demographics. Billed as a “safe” alternative to marijuana that standard drug tests can’t detect, even high school athletes are turning to K2. The same goes for young workers who are subject to random drug testing. The results are devastating among every group: K2 leads to lasting lung damage, heart damage, coma and even death. As three users shared with PBS, these effects can occur after a single use.

K2/Spice Myth vs. Fact

Myth: K2 is related to marijuana

Fact: Despite being called “synthetic marijuana,” K2 is not chemically related to marijuana. While there are no fatal overdoses linked to marijuana, despite the addiction problems that cannabis can cause, K2 is linked to hundreds of deaths in multiple states, prompting a warning from the FDA.

Myth: K2 is a “safe” alternative to illegal street drugs

Fact: K2 is a dangerous substance with unpredictable and potentially deadly side effects. Because the compounds change with every batch, so do the risks and potential complications.

Myth: K2 is only a problem in big cities

Fact: K2 has spread throughout the country, with the biggest concentration of overdoses in the Midwest. The drug has become a particular problem for high school athletes looking to avoid positive drug tests.

Myth: I don’t see K2 in my local convenience stores, so I don’t need to worry about my loved ones finding it.

Fact: K2 is easily available online, allowing teens to buy in bulk from local suppliers and international manufacturers.

K2 Effects

Viral videos of users slumped over benches and unresponsive on public streets have demonstrated the striking effects of K2 use. The drug leaves users unable to speak or even move as it wreaks havoc on internal organs. Side-effects include:

  • Anxiety
  • Increased heart rate
  • Violent actions
  • Suicidal tendencies
  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Vomiting

Even after the drug “wears off,” users report chest pain, fever, chills, heart palpitations and nausea. Some batches contain a blood thinner called brodifacoum, which can cause bleeding that lasts for weeks, according to the FDA. Doctors have also reported lasting heart damage. Ironically, athletes hoping to circumvent marijuana drug testing find themselves banned from participating in sports under doctors’ orders due to risk of further risk of organ damage.

K2/Spice and Vaping

As vaping has increased in popularity alongside CBD, some suppliers are illegally replacing natural CBD with cheap K2/Spice. Remember, synthetic marijuana is not marijuana at all. The compounds change frequently, and they can contain a host of dangerous chemicals with unpredictable results.

As USA Today recently reported, vaping cartridges sold as CBD-based have led to serious illness. A compound that put a US teen in a coma also led to 11 deaths in Europe. For those who might think these cartridges are outliers, the Associated Press recently put 30 kinds of CBD vaping oil to the test. They found that 10 contained synthetic marijuana, while others contained no CBD at all.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know what you’re inhaling before it’s too late. Despite regulations against selling K2/Spice in smoke shops, it still appears on shelves. And manufacturers continue to use kid-friendly packaging that makes teens feel it’s safe.

K2/Spice in Other Drugs

Vaping cartridges aren’t the only place opportunistic suppliers are injecting K2/Spice. The compound is also popping up in hard drugs. After overdose deaths from heroin surged, Canadian officials recently found K2/Spice in 30% of examined heroin and fentanyl samples, as reported by Filter Magazine . Because compounds in the drug are continuously evolving, it can be impossible to gauge the strength or danger of any single batch. And since the drug is designed to mimic other drugs, including MDMA/Ecstasy, meth and other opioids, there aren’t many boundaries for where it might appear. The Associated Press investigation, reported by CNBC, even found it in marijuana gummies.

Getting Treatment for K2 Addiction

K2 is manufactured by drug makers with an incentive to “hook” young users on their product. Synthetic cannabinoids are now up to 100 times more powerful than marijuana, making these drugs highly addictive. Withdrawal can cause irritability, headaches, anxiety and depression. Because of the physical symptoms and delicate emotional state that K2 can cause for those who have become addicted, medical supervision is recommended. In-patient treatment can help users address underlying issues such as anxiety or depression, while guiding users toward healthy habits and strategies to maintain sobriety as they recover.

If you or someone you know struggles with synthetic marijuana addiction, you are not alone. Call our team today to take your first step toward long-term recovery.

Written By: Sprout Editorial Team

The Sprout Health Group editorial team is passionate about addiction treatment, recovery and mental health issues. Every article is expert-reviewed.

Related Resources


Marijuana refers to the dried flowers, leaves, and stems of the Cannabis plant. Although Cannabis is still an illegal drug on the federal level, many states have legalized or decriminalized recreational use the drug.


Because inhalants are typically legal products, they are a particular danger to adolescents and teens, who may find them easier to obtain than alcohol or illicit drugs. According to recent government statistics, the largest segment of users are between ages 12 and 17.

Designed to mimic the effect of cannabis, K2 refers to shredded plant materials that have been sprayed with chemicals that create an instant high.

Synthetic Marijuana – Spice

What are synthetic cannabinoids?

Spice refers to a growing number of man-made mind-altering chemicals that are either sprayed on dried, shredded plant material so they can be smoked (herbal incense) or sold as liquids to be vaporized and inhaled in e-cigarettes and other devices (liquid incense).

These chemicals are called cannabinoids because they are related to chemicals found in the marijuana plant. Because of this similarity, synthetic cannabinoids are sometimes misleadingly called “synthetic marijuana” (or “fake weed”), and they are often marketed as “safe,” legal alternatives to that drug. In fact, they may affect the brain much more powerfully than marijuana; their actual effects can be unpredictable and, in some cases, severe or even life-threatening.

False Advertising

Synthetic cannabinoid, Spice, products are often labeled “not for human consumption.” Labels also often claim that they contain “natural” material taken from a variety of plants. However, the only parts of these products that are natural are the dried plant materials. Chemical tests show that the active, mind-altering ingredients are cannabinoid compounds made in laboratories.

Synthetic cannabinoids, Spice, are included in a group of drugs called “new psychoactive substances” (NPS). NPS are unregulated psychoactive (mind-altering) substances that have become newly available on the market and are intended to copy the effects of illegal drugs. Some of these substances may have been around for years but have reentered the market in altered chemical forms or due to renewed popularity.

Manufacturers sell these herbal incense products in colorful foil packages and sell similar liquid incense products, like other e-cigarette fluids, in plastic bottles. They market these products under a wide variety of specific brand names; in past years, K2 and Spice were common. Hundreds of other brand names now exist, such as Joker, Black Mamba, Kush, and Kronic.

For several years, synthetic cannabinoid mixtures have been easy to buy in drug paraphernalia shops, novelty stores, gas stations, and through the Internet. Because the chemicals used in them have a high potential for abuse and no medical benefit, authorities have made it illegal to sell, buy, or possess some of these chemicals. However, manufacturers try to sidestep these laws by changing the chemical formulas in their mixtures.

Easy access and the belief that synthetic cannabinoid products are “natural” and therefore harmless have likely contributed to their use among young people. Another reason for their use is that standard drug tests cannot easily detect many of the chemicals used in these products.

How do people use synthetic cannabinoids?

Users usually smoke the dried plant material sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids. Sometimes they mix the sprayed plant material with marijuana, or they brew it as tea. Other users buy synthetic cannabinoid products as liquids to vaporize them in e-cigarettes.

How do synthetic cannabinoids affect the brain?

Synthetic cannabinoids act on the same brain cell receptors as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana.

So far, there have been few scientific studies of the effects of synthetic cannabinoids on the human brain, but researchers do know that some of them bind more strongly than marijuana to the cell receptors affected by THC, and may produce much stronger effects. The resulting health effects can be unpredictable.

Because the chemical composition of many synthetic cannabinoid products is unknown and may change from batch to batch, these products are likely to contain substances that cause dramatically different effects than the user might expect.

Synthetic cannabinoid users report some effects similar to those produced by marijuana:

-elevated mood
-altered perception—awareness of surrounding objects and conditions
-symptoms of psychosis—delusional or disordered thinking detached from reality

Psychotic effects include:

-extreme anxiety
-paranoia—extreme and unreasonable distrust of others
-hallucinations—sensations and images that seem real though they are not
-What are some other health effects of synthetic cannabinoids?

People who have used synthetic cannabinoids and have been taken to emergency rooms have shown severe effects including:

-rapid heart rate
-violent behavior
-suicidal thoughts

Synthetic cannabinoids can also raise blood pressure and cause the reduced blood supply to the heart, as well as kidney damage and seizures. Use of these drugs is associated with a rising number of deaths.

Are synthetic cannabinoids addictive?

Yes, synthetic cannabinoids can be addictive. Regular users trying to quit may have the following withdrawal symptoms:


Behavioral therapies and medications have not specifically been tested for treatment of addiction to these products.

Points to Remember

-Synthetic cannabinoids refer to a growing number of man-made mind-altering chemicals sprayed on dried, shredded plant material or vaporized to get high.

-Synthetic cannabinoids are sometimes misleadingly called “synthetic marijuana” (or “fake weed”) because they act on the same brain cell receptors as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana.

-The effects of synthetic cannabinoids can be unpredictable and severe or even life-threatening.

-The only parts of synthetic cannabinoid products that are “natural” are the dried plant materials. Chemical tests show that their active ingredients are man-made cannabinoid compounds.

Synthetic cannabinoid users report some effects similar to those produced by marijuana:

-elevated mood
-altered perception
-symptoms of psychosis

Synthetic cannabinoids can also cause serious mental and physical health problems including:

-rapid heart rate
-violent behavior
-suicidal thoughts

Synthetic cannabinoids can be addictive. Behavioral therapies and medications have not specifically been tested for treatment of addiction to these products.
Much more is available in the Synthetic Cannabinoid brochure and Drug ID Guide.

Synthetic Marijuana – Spice What are synthetic cannabinoids? Spice refers to a growing number of man-made mind-altering chemicals that are either sprayed on dried, shredded plant material so