What Is the Deal With Synthetic Marijuana?

Feb 5, 2016

Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

By Leon Neyfakh

If you’re confused by synthetic marijuana, then a series of recent news stories about the drug probably didn’t clear things up. First, the Boston Globe reported that New England Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones “had a bad reaction to a substance he put into his body” and walked to a nearby police station to get help. That substance, the Globe later explained, was synthetic marijuana. Then last week, police in Washington state reported that another NFL player, Seattle Seahawks fullback Derrick Coleman, admitted to smoking synthetic weed in October before getting into a hit-and-run car accident. After the accident, witnesses described Coleman as acting “delirious and aggravated.”

Off the sports pages, you might have seen a story about a group of senior citizens in Pennsylvania who got arrested for running a synthetic marijuana trafficking ring worth more than $1.5 million. Or perhaps you saw the one about a pair of brothers in Milwaukee, ages 12 and 13, ending up in the hospital after smoking some fake pot and having a violent reaction that included foaming at the mouth, “throwing up white mucus,” “talking funny,” and shaking.

These are only the latest data points showing the rise of synthetic marijuana as a staple of recreational drug use in America. Against the backdrop of softening attitudes toward actual marijuana, synthetic weed has attracted a strange coalition of users, including athletes, curious teenagers, and desperate homeless people. Here’s a primer on the drug whose ambiguous legal status and unpredictable side effects have turned it into a bleak cultural phenomenon.

What is synthetic marijuana, and how is it different from normal weed?

The most important fact to understand about synthetic marijuana is that it isn’t just one thing. It’s more like a category of things, a family of man-made chemicals that have one major characteristic in common: They interact with the same cell receptors in the brain as THC, the active ingredient in natural cannabis. In theory, someone could ingest these chemicals in any number of ways, but manufacturers play up the association between their products and traditional marijuana by spraying their chemicals onto diced-up dry plant matter that can be sold in baggies and smoked.

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