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Synthetic Marijuana's Long-Term Effects on the Brain

By Neha Kashyap
Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Casarella, MD on December 26, 2021
Learn more about how long-term synthetic marijuana use affects the brain.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), synthetic marijuana is any chemical sold as having the same effect as natural marijuana, but it can be toxic and more addictive than the real thing. Learn more about synthetic marijuana and how it could affect the brain long term.

What is Synthetic Marijuana?

According to NIDA, synthetic marijuana is made to look and feel like natural marijuana. It can be sold as a liquid for vaping or sprayed on shredded plants to be smoked. Common synthetic marijuana brands include “K2” and “Spice.” 

Although some synthetic marijuana chemicals were made illegal in 2012, manufacturers work around the rules by changing formulas or by labeling packages as “unsafe for human consumption,” according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

“Thankfully K2 and Spice have been removed from the legal market, although some companies keep finding ways to get around this. But even when it was sold legally no one really knew what they were actually consuming. Pesticides, household cleaning products, fentanyl - who knows?” April Hatch, MSN, RN, of the Cannabis Care Team, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

How Synthetic Marijuana Affects Your Brain

Synthetic marijuana targets the same part of the brain as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical from the cannabis plant —  also known as a cannabinoid — that provides a psychedelic high. Synthetic cannabinoids and THC are not the same.

“These synthetic chemicals are not safe and may affect the brain much more powerfully than marijuana,” says Pritesh Kumar, PhD, a cannabinoid pharmacology researcher. 

According to NIDA, the immediate effects of synthetic marijuana on the brain can  include:

  • Better mood
  • Relaxation
  • Confusion 
  • Detaching from reality

According to the CDC, synthetic marijuana effects can also include:

  • Irritability
  • Violent behavior
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Sleepiness
  • Dizziness
  • Seizures

It is possible to overdose on synthetic marijuana, which can be deadly. If you notice extreme behavior changes in someone using synthetic marijuana, the CDC recommends calling 911 or a local poison control center immediately.

While the long-term effects of synthetic marijuana on the brain have not been studied, the drug is known to be addictive, according to the CDC. The World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases, or ICD-11, which provides diagnostic labels for diseases, includes diagnoses for harm from synthetic cannabinoids. According to the manual, synthetic cannabinoid use could cause mental disorders, psychotic symptoms as well as harm to those around the user.

Synthetic marijuana addiction can be spotted through withdrawal symptoms after the last dose, according to the CDC. Synthetic marijuana withdrawal symptoms can be mild or severe, depending on the user, and can cause:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Restlessness
  • Breathing issues
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Chest pain
  • Seizures

It’s advisable to undergo synthetic marijuana withdrawal under medical supervision.

Get Help Now

Synthetic marijuana addiction can also cause heart and lung issues and other addiction-related problems, including money trouble, broken relationships, and derailed life goals. But treatment options are available

If you or a loved one is struggling with synthetic marijuana addiction, WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is another resource that may be helpful.

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