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Synthetic Marijuana Detox Guide: Symptoms, Timeline, and Effects

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In recent years, the trend of abusing illicitly synthesized drugs has become a health concern in the U.S. and across the globe.1 Often, these drugs are intentionally created to have similar psychoactive effects as other drugs while differing enough in chemical structure and composition to avoid regulation and law enforcement.1 The synthetic cannabinoids are one group of these “designer drugs” that people commonly refer to as synthetic marijuana.1

Though some may promote the marketing of synthetic marijuana as a natural product, it is in fact one of several lab-engineered chemicals designed to mirror the effects of marijuana. These substances are most commonly sprayed as a liquid on to plant material.2 The packaged contents are then sold as incense, herbs, or potpourri and labeled as “not for human consumption.”1,4 Many chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana are illegal (Schedule I controlled substances), but the makers continually develop novel variations to evade legal issues.4 Synthetic marijuana is then used by:1,4

  • Smoking.
  • Vaping.
  • Making into a tea.

With more than 100 varieties, synthetic marijuana is known by many names like:2

  • K2.
  • Spice.
  • Black mamba.
  • Zen Organic.
  • Arctic Synergy.
  • Bombay blue.
  • Moon rocks.
  • Cloud Nine.
  • Yucatan Fire.

Synthetic marijuana is a widely abused substance, especially among teens and young adults. In 2016, 2.7% of 8th graders, 3.3% of 10th graders, and 3.5% of 12th graders reported past-year synthetic marijuana abuse.4

Synthetic cannabinoids are addictive and can lead to physical dependence and addiction in heavy users.2 When synthetic marijuana addiction develops, professional detox and treatment programs can be beneficial in relieving withdrawal symptoms and promoting long-term recovery.

Signs and Symptoms of Synthetic Marijuana Abuse

Synthetic marijuana will trigger many of the same signs and symptoms of marijuana since the chemicals are created to mimic the effects of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in the brain.1 The wanted effects of synthetic marijuana abuse and intoxication include:6

  • A sense of well-being.
  • Distorted perceptions.
  • Relaxation.

These desirable effects often give way to many unpleasant or dangerous effects. The physical and mental health impact of synthetic marijuana abuse includes:1,6

  • Numbness and tingling.
  • Quick heart rate.
  • Increased blood pressure.
  • Tremors.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Intense anxiety.
  • Confusion.
  • Paranoid thoughts.
  • Severe agitation and irritability.
  • Aggression.

People who believe that synthetic marijuana is a safe and legal alternative to marijuana are mistaken. Synthetic marijuana is between 4 and 100 times stronger than marijuana, so it will produce effects that are proportionally stronger.2 Also, there is no way to determine what ingredients are actually in synthetic marijuana, which can result in intense and unpredictable outcomes.2

A person abusing synthetic cannabinoids will show a significant change in actions and appearance. They may possess packaging and paraphernalia often used to smoke the substance like:1,4 

  • Pipes.
  • Rolling papers.
  • Disposable electronic cigarettes.
  • Empty foil packets.

Effects of Chronic Use

The long-term effects of synthetic marijuana abuse are not yet known as its use is a relatively new phenomenon.2 Although the entire scope of chronic use has not been studied, synthetic marijuana can introduce several health dangers to those who use it. As use increases in frequency and duration, there are greater risks of ill effects of synthetic marijuana abuse including:1,2,4,5

  • Seizures.
  • Heart attacks.
  • Kidney damage.
  • Respiratory issues similar to those seen in tobacco smokers.
  • Injuries due to erratic or violent behaviors.
  • Onset or exacerbation of mental health disorders.
  • Death.

The mental health consequences can be even more severe. There are reports of extreme depression with suicidal thoughts that can endanger the safety of the person abusing synthetic cannabinoids.6 As use continues, synthetic marijuana use can compromise the well-being of others as well. The associated hallucinations, confusion, agitation, and aggression can culminate with violence and physical harm towards others.6

Cannabinoid abuse can lead to impaired judgment, poor motor coordination, and slowed reaction time that, over time, increase the risk of injuries, accidents, and falls.5 Unprotected sex is more likely during intoxication resulting in unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease.5

Another risk of synthetic marijuana use is overdose. There is a documented phenomenon of overdose in connection to acute toxicity related to synthetic marijuana. Death has been reported as a worst-case outcome in connection with synthetic cannabinoid overdose, but other, severe developments such as heart attack and kidney failure may require emergency medical support.1,3,4 Emergency department records of synthetic marijuana-related visits provide a glimpse into the severity of the issue.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens:4

  • In 2010, synthetic marijuana was responsible for about 11,400 ER visits.
  • In 2011, it was responsible for about 28,500 ER visits.

With the numerous hazards linked to synthetic marijuana abuse, quitting is essential but challenging. To avoid the risks of addiction, anyone abusing synthetic marijuana should consider formal detox and addiction treatment.

Do I Need Detox?

Synthetic marijuana is addictive. Someone addicted to the substance will compulsively seek out the drug while spending significant amounts of time, effort, and money to obtain synthetic marijuana with little regard for the repercussions. Identifying signs of a substance use disorder can be difficult, but it can be helpful to focus on objective indicators of a synthetic cannabinoid addiction, including:5

  • Using large amounts of synthetic cannabinoids over a long period of time.
  • Having a strong craving to use the drug.
  • Having a strong desire to cut down or quit without success.
  • Experiencing problems at home, work, or school related to synthetic marijuana use.
  • Experiencing an increase in interpersonal conflict, social issues, and isolation related to use.
  • Losing interest in previously enjoyed hobbies.
  • Continuing use despite physical or mental health consequences.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms with the cessation of use.

Having any of these characteristics indicates that synthetic marijuana may be problematic in your life or the life of a loved one. The prospect of quitting cannabinoid use is stressful, but no one should attempt recovery alone. Contact a synthetic marijuana detox center to find assistance in your drug-free lifestyle.

Symptoms of Synthetic Marijuana Withdrawal

Addiction and dependence are serious concerns for someone abusing synthetic marijuana. Without substances interfering, the brain normally operates in harmony. It produces and releases chemicals called neurotransmitters—including our own, natural endocannabinoid signaling molecules—to regulate functioning and maintain balance.8 When substances, such as synthetic marijuana, enter the body, they create a noteworthy imbalance and force the brain to adapt to the presence of the drug.8

Over time, the brain adjusts to synthetic marijuana exposure and requires it to function optimally, a phenomenon known as physical dependence. When synthetic marijuana is not present, the brain becomes unbalanced, which may trigger synthetic marijuana withdrawal symptoms like:5,6,10

  • Headaches.
  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Irritability.
  • Insomnia.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Tremors.
  • Sweating.
  • Fever.
  • Chest pain.
  • Palpitations.

During synthetic marijuana withdrawal, the individual will likely experience strong cravings to consume more of the drug and may return to use in order to alleviate unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. It can be extremely difficult to break the cycle of addiction on your own.

Detox Timeline

Generally, the timeline for drug detox depends on the interaction of various factors, including:

  • The type of synthetic cannabinoids used.
  • The frequency and dose used.
  • The method of use.
  • If combined with alcohol or other drugs.
  • Co-occurring mental health conditions.
  • Other individual differences.

The synthetic marijuana withdrawal syndrome may be similar to that seen with marijuana cessation, but the differences in speed of onset and potency of synthetic marijuana’s effects may result in changes to the expected marijuana detox timeline. Marijuana withdrawal symptoms may not begin for 1-3 days after last use while synthetic marijuana withdrawal symptoms may begin just 15 minutes after last use.5,10 Others may not experience withdrawal symptoms for days.

With many types of substances available and limited research in this area, exact duration and course of synthetic marijuana detoxes are currently unknown.

What is the Detox Process Like?

Feeling unsure or intimidated by the detox process will only stand in your way of seeking treatment. Detox, done in a safe and controlled way, is a great way to manage withdrawal, transition into addiction treatment, and achieve long-term abstinence. 

Detoxification refers to the body working to process toxins and eliminate them from the system.9 Professional detox programs employ a sophisticated set of interventions and strategies to increase success and safety during the withdrawal process by ensuring the medical and psychiatric health of the individual.9 Professional detox programs are comprised of 3 parts meant to effectively deal with detox. They include:9

  • Evaluation: Each person entering detox needs a comprehensive evaluation to assess their current symptoms, previous substances experiences, and treatment needs. Drug tests and urine screens are used in this step. By investigating physical health, mental health, stressors, and supports, the evaluator can recommend the best level of care.
  • Stabilization: This second part of detox involves staff providing medical and supportive care to the individual to minimize withdrawal symptoms and achieve a drug-free state.
  • Fostering treatment readiness: Detox is an invaluable part of addiction treatment, but additional treatment must take place to secure long-term abstinence and address underlying issues fueling addiction. The detox staff will help to build motivation for substance abuse treatment and connect the individual to available services upon program completion.

Synthetic Marijuana Detox Programs

All synthetic marijuana programs will share the same goal of helping the individual end their addiction and physical dependence in a safe way, but programs will differ in their range of services, intensity of services, and treatment setting. Drug detox programs are available in 5 settings to match the needs of the individual. The settings are:9

  • Medically managed: The most intense, inpatient setting with a strong medical presence in a hospital setting.
  • Medically monitored: Usually occurs in free standing detox centers offering inpatient care and some medical supervision.
  • Clinically managed: A residential rehab setting with 24-hour staff and supportive care rather than medical management.
  • Ambulatory with onsite monitoring: Outpatient programs with additional therapy services.
  • Ambulatory without monitoring: Outpatient detox found in a physician’s office without additional therapy services.

The heaviest synthetic marijuana users will require the most intense services while others likely can be maintained on an outpatient basis. Drug detox is time-limited, so it is important to remember that follow-up care is always an essential step to pursue.

Addiction Treatment Options

Detox is focused on establishing medical safety during the withdrawal process. It does not address the factors that influence addiction; synthetic marijuana addiction treatment does. Just like detox programs, addiction treatment is filled with many options that differ in:

  • Physical location.
  • Types and intensities of services.
  • Duration of treatment.
  • Staff expertise and philosophy.
  • Price/insurance coverage.

Not every treatment type will be ideal for each person, so it is beneficial to consider what treatment is best for your needs. One can accomplish this by:

  • Speaking to your detox treatment team about options.
  • Researching options online.
  • Discussing the issues with people that are or were in treatment.
  • Receiving an evaluation from a location addiction expert or doctor.

Drug abuse treatment options generally fall into 2 broad categories:

  • Inpatient/residential treatment: These programs require that the individual lives at the center during treatment. These are more intense services and provide 24-hour staffing and care. Some inpatient/ residential options last just a few weeks while others are a year in length.
  • Outpatient treatment: Reserved for people with lower needs, these programs allow the individual to live at home, continue working, and care for other responsibilities while attending treatment during the day. Outpatient treatment varies with some programs involving 30 hours per week (partial hospitalization programs), 9 hours per week (intensive outpatient programs), and 1-2 hours per week (standard outpatient).

Other synthetic marijuana addiction options will address the unique needs of the individual with tailored programs including:

Some drug abuse treatments will employ a 12-step model based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model. Someone that prefers another approach should consider a non-12-step program.

During the decision-making process, there can be tremendous pressure to pick the “right” program. Consider that every choice has its pros and cons, so weighing the options with your treatment team can reduce the burden as you arrive at your decision. Remember, addiction is complex, but with therapy, medications, and time, the condition is treatable.

Sources

  1. Drug Enforcement Administration. (2017). Drugs of Abuse.
  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). Spice, Bath Salts, and Behavioral Health.
  3. Cooper, Z. D. (2016). Adverse Effects of Synthetic Cannabinoids: Management of Acute Toxicity and WithdrawalCurrent Psychiatry Reports18(5), 52.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. (2017). Spice.
  5. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Synthetic Cannabinoids.
  7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition).
  8. Medscape. (2016). Withdrawal Syndromes.
  9. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment.
  10. Cooper, Z.D. (2016). Adverse Effects of Synthetic Cannabinoids: Management of Acute Toxicity and Withdrawal. Current Psychiatry Reports, 18 (5), 52.

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