About synthetic cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids are not one drug. Hundreds of different synthetic cannabinoid chemicals are manufactured and sold. New ones with unknown health risks become available each year. Synthetic cannabinoids are popular because users often believe they are legal and relatively safe.

a silhouette of a head highlighting the brain

These chemicals are called cannabinoids because they act on the same brain cell receptors as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main active ingredient in marijuana. However, the hundreds of known synthetic cannabinoid chemicals and THC are different chemicals. In fact, synthetic cannabinoids may affect the brain in different and unpredictable ways compared to marijuana.

Synthetic cannabinoids are used in a variety of ways:

  • Sprayed onto plant material and smoked
  • Mixed into a liquid and vaped in electronic nicotine delivery devices (such as e-cigarettes)
  • Added to herbal tea or to food and swallowed


Synthetic cannabinoids are widely available.

Consumers can buy synthetic cannabinoids in convenience stores, from individual drug dealers, or online as incense or natural herbal products.They are sold under a number of brand names, including

  • K2
  • Spice
  • AK-47
  • Mr. Happy
  • Scooby Snax
  • Kush
  • Kronic

Many synthetic cannabinoids are illegal.

  • The federal government has banned many specific synthetic cannabinoids. Many state and local governments have passed their own laws targeting other synthetic cannabinoids.
  • Recent federal and state laws targeting synthetic cannabinoids have banned general categories of ingredients, rather than specific chemicals.
  • Makers of synthetic cannabinoids try to get around these laws by creating new products with different ingredients or by labeling them “not for human consumption.”

Synthetic cannabinoid products are unsafe. It is hard to know what the products contain or what your reaction to them will be.

  • There are no standards for making, packaging, or selling synthetic cannabinoid chemicals. That means that two packets of a brand-named product may have completely different chemicals.
  • The amount of the synthetic cannabinoid chemical(s) can vary between batches or even within the same batch.
  • Synthetic cannabinoid products may also be contaminated with other drugs or toxic chemicals, such as synthetic cathinones (“bath salts,” “flakka”).

Synthetic cannabinoids can harm your health.

Synthetic cannabinoids can cause severe illness and death.
Synthetic cannabinoids can affect brain function. Signs and symptoms include:

  • Agitation and irritability
  • Confusion and concentration problems
  • Hallucinations, delusions, psychosis, suicidal thoughts, and violent behavior
  • Seizures
  • Sleepiness and dizziness

Synthetic cannabinoids can cause other health problems:

  • Breathing problems
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Heart attack, fast heart rate, high blood pressure, and stroke
  • Kidney failure
  • Muscle damage

These health problems depend on many factors, including the specific synthetic cannabinoid, the dose (how much), and the duration of use (for how long).
The long-term effects of long-term synthetic cannabinoid use are unknown.

Synthetic cannabinoids may be addictive, since some people have reported withdrawal symptoms after heavy use over a long time.

If you suddenly stop using synthetic cannabinoids, you may have the following symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Severe anxiety
  • Sweating
  • Trouble sleeping

You may have more severe symptoms if you use synthetic cannabinoids frequently for a long time period and suddenly stop, such as:

  • Breathing problems
  • Chest pain
  • Palpitations
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Seizures

Experts think that the severity of these symptoms is related to how much synthetic cannabinoid is used and for how long.

If you or anyone you know becomes sick after using synthetic cannabinoids, seek immediate medical attention. Call 911 or go to the closest emergency room.

There is no specific antidote for synthetic cannabinoids, but health care professionals can provide supportive treatments, such as oxygen, intravenous fluids, and medications to control seizures, agitation, and nausea.

  • Use caution in handling these products If your work (such as law enforcement) involves handling synthetic cannabinoids, you can learn more about how to protect yourself from exposure by reading this reportpdf icon.

Learn more about synthetic cannabinoids.

If you have questions about synthetic cannabinoids, including whether or not to go to the emergency room, please call your healthcare professional or contact your local poison center by calling 1 800 222 1222.

Page last reviewed: March 23, 2021