K2, sometimes called “spice,” is a generic term used for a variety of synthetic drugs designed to mimic the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive component in the cannabis plant.
These synthetic imitation-cannabinoids are often sprayed on plant material to mimic the appearance of natural cannabis products, or otherwise sold in liquid form to be consumed using an e-cigarette or similar device. They’re also sometimes sold as incense or “potpourri” not intended for human consumption.
Unlike natural cannabis, products containing K2 or Spice-type synthetic cannabinoids have been associated with “cardiovascular events, psychosis, seizure, and death.”
K2 is not real marijuana — it's just intended to act on the body’s endocannabinoid system in a similar way.
According to now-retired chemist John W. Huffman, the discovery of the endocannabinoid system spurred research to develop new drugs that could act on the same system as THC.
“Huffman and his colleagues eventually created more than 300 new compounds,” NPR reports, adding that Huffman and his colleagues published their findings for about a decade before a German blogger alerted Huffman to the presence of one of those compounds in a new designer drug called Spice.
“In the years since Huffman's compound was discovered in Spice, over 500 new synthetic drugs have been identified as clandestine chemists have continued to poach formulas from scientific and patent literature and tweaked their recipes to stay out of drug scheduling.”
K2 does not contain THC, but synthetic cannabinoids can often have a dangerously strong affinity for stimulating the endocannabinoid system’s receptors in a similar way.
“Unlike THC, the synthetic cannabinoids present in Spice are high-potency, high-efficacy, cannabinoid-receptor full agonists,” one group of researchers reports.
“These chemicals are called cannabinoids because they act on the same brain cell receptors as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main active ingredient in marijuana,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states.
“However, the hundreds of known synthetic cannabinoid chemicals and THC are different chemicals,” the agency clarifies.
Though state, local, and federal governments have attempted to crack down on the production and sale of K2 and other synthetic cannabinoids, the CDC reports that manufacturers can tweak their formulas or label their products “not for human consumption” in an attempt to circumvent the law.
According to a study examining exposures related to synthetic cannabinoids in the United States between 2016 and 2019, exposures have consistently decreased over the last several years. Of the 7,600 exposures reviewed, about 65% of the incidents required medical attention.
“61 deaths were documented as well,” the study adds.
Notably, the study found a correlation between increased leniency regarding regulation of natural cannabis products and decreased exposures to synthetic cannabinoids.
“State implementation of medical cannabis law was associated with 13% fewer reported annual exposures. Adoption of permissive state cannabis policy was independently and significantly associated with 37% lower reported annual synthetic exposures, relative to restrictive policies,” the study states.
“Among states with permissive law during the period, implementation of legal adult possession/use was associated with 22% fewer reported quarterly exposures. Opening of retail markets was associated with 36% fewer reported exposures, relative to states with medical cannabis only.”
The push against the rise of synthetic cannabinoids is rooted in a growing body of evidence detailing the potential harm that can come from these compounds.
“Although assumed by many teens and first time drug users to be a ‘safe’ and ‘legal’ alternative to marijuana, many recent reports indicate that [synthetic cannabinoids] present in K2 produce toxicity not associated with the primary psychoactive component of marijuana, Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC),” according to a 2015 study of how synthetic cannabinoids impact the body.
The danger of synthetic cannabinoids primarily comes from their increased ability to stimulate CB1 and CB2 receptors in the endocannabinoid system. Synthetic cannabinoids in K2 products, for example, “act as full CB1 and CB2R agonists” in lab settings, meaning that the compounds in these products have a high efficacy for stimulating these receptors.
In contrast, traditional Δ9-THC is only a partial agonist of CB1 receptors, making its influence on the endocannabinoid system much less intense than K2 or Spice.
Jointly is the cannabis discovery app that makes it easy to find and shop the best cannabis and CBD products for your goals. Your matches are calculated from the real product ratings and experiences from hundreds of thousands of people using the Jointly app.
With Jointly, you can shop your top-rated products, and save lists of your favorites to share and bring to your local dispensary to help guide your shopping experience.
The Jointly app also helps you improve your cannabis experiences by uncovering what’s working and what’s not with reflections and personalized insights. In fact, the quality of your diet, how much you slept, who you’re with, and the time of day are just some of the factors that can impact your cannabis experience.
So if you're ready to find your best products and enjoy your perfect cannabis experience, download the Jointly app today on the App Store or Google Play, or shop your matches on the Jointly website. Discovery awaits.