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Synthetic cannabinoids

March 2013

Introduction

Synthetic cannabinoids are marketed under brand names such as ‘Kronic’, ‘Spice’, and ‘K2’. They have been freely available for purchase online since 2004. The products are often sold as herbal incense but, when analysed, some have been found to include synthetic cannabinoids that are added to produce a psychoactive effect. This fact sheet outlines what is known about synthetic cannabinoids, including their effects, potential harms and legal status.

Types of synthetic cannabinoids

The chemical structure of synthetic cannabinoids is different to THC (the active component of cannabis) however they both act on the cannabinoid system in the brain producing similar effects. Synthetic cannabinoids are usually sold combined with herbs and aim to mimic the effects of cannabis.

In their original state, synthetic cannabinoids are a liquid however they usually look like dried herbs when sold. They are also occasionally sold as powders. They are most commonly smoked and sometimes drunk as a tea.

‘Spice’ was the earliest in a series of synthetic cannabinoids sold in many European countries. Since then a number of similar products have been developed, such as ‘Kronic’, ‘Northern Lights’, ‘K2’, ‘Zeus’, ‘Puff’, ‘Tai High’, ‘Aroma’ and ‘Magic Dragon’.

Use of synthetic cannabinoids in Australia

Research into the use of synthetic cannabinoids is limited. An online study recently conducted in Australia found that:

  • The median age of users is 27 years.
  • 70% of users are male.
  • 78% of users are employed.
  • 7% of users use daily.

Effects of synthetic cannabinoids

Many synthetic cannabinoids have only recently been developed, so there is very limited information available about their short and long term effects.

Reported effects of synthetic cannabinoids include:

  • a similar effect to smoking cannabis (See Cannabis facts on the DrugInfo website) 
  • disconnection from thoughts, feelings, memories and sense of identity (dissociative state) 
  • a fast and irregular heartbeat 
  • relaxation 
  • euphoria 
  • a rapid pulse rate 
  • racing thoughts 
  • delayed reaction time 
  • dry mouth 
  • lowering of inhibitions 
  • dizziness 
  • agitation
  • paranoia.


Reports emerging from the United States indicate that people are increasingly experiencing toxic effects from using synthetic cannabinoids, including:

  • a rapid heart rate
  • hypertension
  • tachypnoea (rapid breathing)
  • chest pain
  • heart palpitations
  • hallucinations
  • racing thoughts
  • seizures.


These reports also suggest that the toxic symptoms last for 3 to 4 hours, with no adverse effects persisting beyond this time frame. There is concern however regarding serious acute and long-term toxicities.

These side effects are particular to synthetic cannabinoids as opposed to cannabis.

Long term effects

Tolerance and dependence

There has been limited research into synthetic cannabinoid dependence. Anecdotal evidence suggests however that long term, regular use can cause tolerance and dependence.

Withdrawal

It has been reported that some people who use synthetic cannabinoids heavily for several months before ceasing use experience a withdrawal syndrome. Some of the reported withdrawal symptoms include:

  • paranoia
  • anxiety
  • panic attacks (even when sober) 
  • severe memory problems 
  • difficulty concentrating 
  • severe confusion or disorientation 
  • fear of dying 
  • tachycardia (rapid heart beat) 
  • insomnia 
  • difficulty breathing 
  • constipation
  • nausea
  • difficulty eating
  • weight loss.


Preventing and reducing harms

The use of any drug always carries a risk of harm. The use of an illicit drug increases the risk because the nature of the substance, and the dosage or strength, may be unknown.

Use of synthetic cannabinoids is likely to be more dangerous when:

  • taken in combination with alcohol or other drugs
  • driving or operating heavy machinery
  • judgment or motor coordination is required
  • alone (in case medical assistance is required).

 

Legal issues

Synthetic cannabinoids were banned in Victoria in November 2011. Eight synthetic cannabinoids were listed as Drugs of Dependence in Schedule 11 of the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act 1981 (DPCS Act).

On 1 May 2012, Schedule 9 of the Poisons Standard was amended to include a wider and more generic national control on synthetic cannabinoids.

In addition to enforcing the eight banned synthetic cannabinoids under the DPCS Act, Victoria Police can also enforce the law in regard to any other cannabinoids that are not specified by using the Poisons Standard.

The associated possession offences are listed under section 36B of the DPCS Act.

Please note that this information does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in this way. The information is correct at the time of publication. For information specific to your situation contact a legal aid service in your state or territory.

Further reading

Kronic appeal: Patterns of synthetic cannabinoid use in Australia, Yarra Drug and Health Forum.

Synthetic cannabinoids: The Australian experience National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre (NCPIC).

Information you heard is intended as a general guide only. This audio is copyrighted by the Australian Drug Foundation. Visit www.DrugInfo.ADF.org.au for more