K2: How Synthetic Marijuana Works and Why it’s Dangerous 

Marijuana is being legalized all over the country, for both medical and recreational use. But, along with the rise of legal marijuana, we’ve also seen a rise in a much more dangerous substance: K2.

K2: The Highlights

  • K2 is the street name of synthetic marijuana
  • Even though it’s compared to marijuana, K2 is nothing like it
  • The legal status of K2 is difficult to regulate because new substances appear on the market very often
  • Unlike natural marijuana, K2 has a a high potential for abuse and no medical benefits
  • Some K2 products can produce massive bleeding and can even cause dealth

What Is K2?

Nearly every day there’s a new headline about overdoses of synthetic marijuana: 87 people sick in Brooklyn due to poisonous doses, more than 100 calls to New Haven emergency services in one day due to toxic K2 batch, prison inmates across the country dying in their cells. One particularly infamous report cites rat poison as a cause of these toxic overdoses and side effects.

Despite the apparent danger, K2 use is still rampant. Why are users drawn to the drug, and how exactly does it work?

K2 is a form of ‘synthetic marijuana’ that is sold under different brand names, such as Spice and Blaze. It is usually sold in bright, plastic packaging, sometimes with a label that says “not for human consumption.” People usually use the drug by smoking it, like marijuana.

K2 is often marketed as a ‘synthetic cannabinoid’ that mimics the effects of the main psychoactive compound in marijuana, THC. Many of the compounds in K2 do in fact bind to the same receptors as THC and that they are often much stronger than natural marijuana. However, the label ‘synthetic cannabinoid’ is misleading, and the truth behind the drug is much more insidious.

The Food and Drug Administration has repeatedly warned users of K2 about dangerous, unlisted ingredients that have been found in the drugs. These ingredients can cause all kinds of terrifying effects, including bleeding, vomiting, and violent behavior. Those who have taken a bad dose of K2 are often described as “zombies”.

How Is It Made?

K2 is usually designed to look like natural marijuana plant material. So, the base of the drug is often dried plant material that is itself not psychoactive. The drug cocktail is then sprayed on top of this plant matter.

The chemical mix that is sprayed onto the dried plant matter is created in a lab and often comes from unreliable and unaccountable sources. Chinese manufacturers make up a large part of the market, according to Leafly.

Because the production process is so unregulated, the chemical cocktail can be applied to the plant material unevenly. This results in what is called ‘hot spots’, where high concentrations of the drug have been isolated into one dose, which can easily result in a dangerous, accidental overdose.

Is It Legal?

The legal status of K2 is difficult to nail down. That is because they are part of a class of drugs that the National Institute on Drug Abuse calls New Psychoactive Substances (NPS). Because NPS products are new to the market, and constantly rearranged, disguised, and released in new forms, it is difficult for the government to pass laws that regulate them.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says the following about K2: “For several years, synthetic cannabinoid mixtures have been easy to buy in drug paraphernalia shops, novelty stores, gas stations, and over the internet. Because the chemicals used in them have no medical benefit and a high potential for abuse, 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.”

So, even if a particular mixture of K2 is available online or in a store, that does not make it legal. Even if the product does happen to be legal, that does not mean that it is safe.

Why Is It Popular?

There are several reasons that these synthetic marijuana products are so popular.

First of all, they are cheap. One ounce of natural marijuana can cost around $300 to $350 on the street, while an ounce of K2 may cost as little as $20. Many people buy single ‘joints’ of K2 for a dollar, which is much cheaper than other drugs. Its cheap price makes it very popular with kids, homeless people, and others who are struggling financially.

Another particularly alluring aspect of K2 is that it doesn’t usually come up on drug tests. Because the drug is made up of so many compounds, and those compounds are always changing, it is hard to make an accurate drug test for it. This means that people in the military and other positions that require drug tests often use K2.

K2 is also much easier to get than marijuana, at least for some people. In states where marijuana is still outlawed, it may be much easier to order K2 online, or buy some at the corner store, than to go out and purchase an illegal street drug. The consequences of getting caught may also be much lower.

The History Of Synthetic Marijuana

Many of the compounds that are now used in synthetic marijuana products were originally developed by a chemist named John W. Huffman. Huffman was not actually trying to create a new recreational drug. He was trying to experiment with the medicinal uses of marijuana in a controlled, South Carolina lab. When he found that one of his experiments might be effective in fighting some forms of skin cancer, he published his work, including instructions on how to manufacture the synthetic cannabinoid-like drug that he’d used.

Huffman underestimated how interested people would be in his research. It turns out, his recipe for synthetic marijuana was not very difficult to reproduce, and within a year or two, there were many products on the market containing some version of Huffman’s formula.

Since that time, others have taken after Huffman and tried their hand in the lab. This has resulted in changing K2 formulas, but also very dangerous chemical mixes. If the trend continues as it has, the future of synthetic cannabinoids may be more volatile and wide-spread than its history.

The Short and Long Term Effects Of K2 On The Body

Tegan Boehmer, a scientist and acting Health Studies Chief with the Center for Disease Control, would like to make one thing very clear: “The most important thing to know is that the synthetics are absolutely not marijuana.”

The effects of K2 are not the same as natural marijuana. While there are some similarities, like sedation, lack of coordination, hallucinations, and a sense of euphoria, there are also many other symptoms of use that are more extreme. The short-term effects of synthetic marijuana substances include agitation, confusion, seizures, violent behavior, and suicidal thoughts.

Unlike Marijuana, K2 can lead to death from overdose. This is often because it’s impossible to know what is really in the drug you are using.

The long-term effects of K2 are not well known since the drug is relatively new and there have been very few scientific studies of its effects on the body. However, given the extremity of the short-term effects, the long-term effects would not be negligible.

Boehmer warns users that it’s not just long-term effects that they should be worried about when it comes to using K2. “Any one of these things can happen the very first time you try one of these products because you don’t know what drug you’re getting, you don’t know how much is in there, and you don’t know how your own individual metabolism will handle it. The warnings you see from the CDC and NIH are not scare tactics. Be careful out there.”

Why Are Doctors Worried About K2?


Besides the obvious concerns (rat poison!), doctors are worried about K2 because it is so easy to get, and because those who are using the drug are often already very vulnerable populations, such as children and the homeless.

Doctors are also concerned with how the drug can easily lead to violent behavior that requires intervention by authorities like police and psychiatric hospitals.

One psychiatrist from New York, Amarjot Surdhar, told Tonic, “We are all at our wit’s end with these things. The evolution of this business keeps running ahead of the law enforcement, and the medical and scientific world.”

K2 Addiction And Recovery

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, K2 and other synthetic marijuana products are addictive. They report that “regular users trying to quit may have the following withdrawal symptoms: headaches, anxiety, depression, irritability.”

Because the drug is so new and so volatile, no medications or therapies have been specifically tested for K2 addiction recovery. It is suggested that those who are seeking treatment be screened for co-occurring mental health issues.

Some of the immediate effects of K2 overdose can be reversed through medical treatment. For instance, high doses of Vitamin K can be given through IV to stop severe bleeding that may be caused by some ingredients in K2.

K2 Use In The Era of Legal Cannabis

Many doctors, politicians, and advocates link the popularity of synthetic cannabis to the criminalization of natural marijuana. Because people are afraid of drug tests, legal repercussions, and social stigma, they may use the much more dangerous K2 drugs rather than marijuana.

In at least two scientific studies (here and here), participants reported using synthetic marijuana products because they feared having a positive result on a drug test. Thus, many have argued that legalizing marijuana, or at least taking the drug off of drug tests used by courts and employers, would have a significant impact on reducing the use of K2.

Rafael Espinal, a city council member in New York City, said in a recent hearing, “while I understand that today’s hearing is not about the legalization of marijuana, I want to express my belief that legalizing marijuana would go a long way toward dissolving the K2 market.”

Some believe that the widespread legalization of marijuana may, in fact, spell the end of the synthetic marijuana industry altogether. Prices, social stigma, and legal repercussions of natural marijuana use would be low or non-existent, meaning that it would clearly be a more preferable, and safer, option that drugs like K2.

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