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How Does Spice (K2) Affect a Developing Brain?

K2 or spice may have been designed to mimick marijuana, but the damage it inflicts is far greater. 

Users of this synthetic cannabinoid can experience overdose or death. Reports of spice overdoses in pockets of the country seem to affirm this notion.  

In 2018 alone, a dangerous batch of K2 resulted in 56 overdoses in Brooklyn, New York; in Chicago, K2 was blamed for severe bleeding in 56 overdose victims, of which two died; and in New Haven, Connecticut, a bad batch caused almost 80 overdoses in a 24-hour period and more than 100 total. There were 1,054 K2 overdoses in September in Washington, D.C., according to The Washington Post.

The appeal of K2 or Spice is that it is cheap and readily available. A bag can cost $5, and a joint can go for one or two dollars. Men in their 20s and 30s are the biggest users, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Homeless people represent a growing number of K2 users due to the drug’s affordability. That’s what also makes the drug appealing to teenagers who tend to seek out cheaply obtained highs.

Yet, the excruciating, if not graphic details of K2 overdoses lend it a certain degree of horror. One of the Brooklyn overdose victims, a middle-aged man, collapsed on the street, according to a witness. As he laid on his back “grimacing with hands clenched,” he started coughing and spitting up blood and bile as a Good Samaritan assisted him.

The fact that Spice can produce such grievous effects in a user only hints at the type of damage it can do to a developing brain, especially that of an adolescent. While the opioid crisis relentlessly dominates the news cycle when it comes to hazardous drug overdoses, K2 should not go ignored.

It, too, poses multiple and catastrophic threats to the body, even death.

What Is K2?

When synthetic cannabinoids were created, the intentions were noble. These human-made compounds were developed so that scientists could “study the structure and function of cannabinoid receptors,” states the CDC. They are named cannabinoids because they contain chemicals similar to the ones found in the marijuana plant.

However, cannabinoids like K2 started to become drugs of abuse, particularly in Europe. They started appearing as drugs for sale on the continent in 2005 and were made available in the U.S. in 2008.

K2 got its name from the second-highest mountain on earth in China. Thus, it remains one of the most widely-abused synthetic cannabinoid blends.

When K2 is being formulated as a substance of abuse, it is dissolved in a solvent like ethanol or acetone. Once liquefied, it is sprayed on various plant leaves. Those leaves are typically Dog Rose, Lion’s Ear, Indian Warrior, and/or Marshmallow, which, by themselves, produce psychotropic effects on the mind.

K2 can come as shredded plant material or as an herb or spice mixture. It is also sold in liquid form. It is often packaged and sold in small, shiny packages emblazoned with eye-catching graphics or popular cartoon characters. Dealers will sell it under the “not for human consumption” label to keep it from being banned under the Federal Analogue Act of 1986. Yet, users can smoke or vaporize K2 as they would marijuana. 

Synthetic cannabinoids like K2 act on the same brain receptors as THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. While there is not much information on spice’s effect on the brain, there are instances where the synthetic substance binds more strongly to receptors than THC, which leads to far stronger effects.

Like all synthetic cannabinoids, the chemical makeup of K2 can vary from batch to batch, which can inflict effects that range from mild to severe. Sometimes, a K2 batch doesn’t produce any discernible effects whatsoever.  In 2014, for example, authorities reported 177 different synthetic cannabinoids.

When K2 is formulated to produce marijuana-like effects, users report feeling relaxed and elevated. They also experience altered perception and awareness regarding the objects around them. 

Still, K2 tends to trigger reactions far more severe than marijuana, devastating a user’s brain and body in the process. That’s why it is misleading to regard the substance as a synthetic version of marijuana.

It is much more devastating. 

How Dangerous Is K2?

K2 is highly addictive, quickly ensnaring users in a cycle of tolerance, dependence, and addiction.

The damages that K2 can inflict on the body are manifold, impacting the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and psychiatric realms of the body.

According to the CDC, synthetic cannabinoids can be two to 100 times more potent than THC. This is why it produces complications far worse than marijuana.

What It Does to the Brain/Central Nervous System

A CDC study reported that 61 percent of respondents who had only been exposed to synthetic cannabinoids experienced negative effects on their CNS and brain. They reported feelings of agitation, CNS depression, coma, delirium, and psychosis.

Other psychiatric effects of K2 include seizures, hallucinations, violent behavior, suicidal thoughts, and even stroke.

What It Does to the Cardiovascular System

Synthetic cannabinoids like K2 can inflict permanent damage to the heart and circulatory system. A user can experience rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, hypertension, chest pains, and even heart attack.

What It Does to the Kidneys

As if those effects weren’t enough, synthetic cannabinoids can also cause substantial damage to the kidneys. A 2012 study reported that a sampling of users experienced acute kidney injury.  Another complication users experienced was rhabdomyolysis, which is a death of muscle fibers that leads to their contents being released into the bloodstream. This action can lead to kidney failure.

Why Teenagers Are Particularly Vulnerable

What makes teenagers particularly vulnerable to K2 or spice use is the fact that the drugs are cheap and readily accessible. They also mistakenly view it as a safe and legal substitute for marijuana, which still carries a Schedule I designation under the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The federal agency did schedule five synthetic cannabinoids into Schedule I in 2010.

Synthetic cannabinoid use is on the rise among high school seniors, according to a September 2017 New York University study. The researchers reported that three percent of high school seniors said they used K2, spice, or bath salts. Half of them said they used synthetic cannabinoids more than three times in a month.

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What’s more, 20 percent of those seniors reporting using a synthetic cannabinoid almost daily—between 20 days to 30 days in the past month. Plus, eight out of 10 of them said they used marijuana as well. 

It’s worth noting that a 2017 Monitoring the Future (MTF) Study reported that 3.7 percent of high school seniors reported using synthetic marijuana.

K2’s ability to inflict complications such as seizures, hallucinations, psychosis, and even stroke can cause irreparable damage to the developing brain of a teenager or adolescent. 

K2/Spice Abuse Statistics

  • According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there were 28,531 emergency room visits involving K2/Spice in 2011.
  • A study conducted by the American College of Medical Toxicology reported that between 2010 and 2015, there were 42,138 cases of toxic exposure to synthetic cannabinoids from 101 clinics and hospitals.
  • 27.4% of synthetic cannabinoid intoxication cases occurred in patients between the ages of 13 and 18, according to the American College of Medical Toxicology.
  • 83% of synthetic cannabinoid intoxication cases were male, states that same study.


Many people

Why Medical Attention and Professional Treatment Is Necessary

Because synthetic cannabinoids like K2 and spice can inflict severe bodily injuries, medical treatment is absolutely essential along with a medical detoxification. In a professional addiction treatment setting, detox will be medically supervised where patients will be monitored around the clock for physical effects or any evidence of chronic illness. 

Once you or a loved one has been medically stabilized, outpatient treatment may be the next best step after detox. At this stage, you will receive the counseling and therapy to help you break the chains of psychological addiction.

A team of experienced clinicians will also help you navigate aftercare options to help maintain your sobriety and prevent relapse

Get Help for Your K2/Spice Addiction

If you or a loved one is using K2 or spice, the most effective step you can take in reclaiming your life is by entering into a professional addiction treatment program.

Call 855-960-5341 anytime, day or evening, for a free consultation with one of our knowledgeable addiction recovery specialists. They can help you locate the right treatment option. You can also contact us online for more information.  


The New York Times. (2018, May 22) Overdoses From ‘Dangerous Batch’ of K2 Grows to 56 in Brooklyn. Southall, A., Picolli, S. Retrieved from

WGN9. (2018, April 2) 3 arrested in Chicago in connection to synthetic pot; 2 deaths, 54 others cases of severe bleeding. CNN Wire. Retrieved from

NECN. (2018, August 17) New Haven Emergency Crews Respond to Additional K2 Overdoses Around City Green Thursday; Total This Week Over 100. Retrieved from

The Washington Post. (2018, November 24) Homeless people are synthetic drugs’ latest victims. This activist has had enough. McCoy, T. Retrieved from

Synthetic Cannabinoids (Spice): An Overview for Healthcare Providers | HSB | NCEH. (n.d.). Retrieved from

The National Institute on Drug Abuse Blog Team. (2017, November 6). K2/Spice: An Unpredictable Danger. Retrieved from

Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). (2017, August 24). Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013, February 15) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Acute Kidney Injury Associated with Synthetic Cannabinoid Use — Multiple States, 2012. Retrieved from

Drug Enforcement Administration. (2010) Rules – 2010 > Notice of Intent: Temporary Placement of Five Synthetic Cannabinoids Into Schedule I. Retrieved from

UPI News. (2017, September 11) Study finds dangerous drug use trend in high school seniors. Wallace, A. Retrieved from

Monitoring the Future. National Survey on Drug Use 1975-2017. 2017 Overview. Key Findings on Adolescent Drug Use. Johnston, L., Miech, R., O'Malley, P., Bachman, J., Schulenberg, J., Patrick, M. Retrieved from

How K2 and Other Synthetic Cannabinoids Got Their Start in the Lab. (n.d.). Retrieved from

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016, April 07). Synthetic Cannabinoids (K2/Spice). Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016, July 15) Acute Poisonings from Synthetic Cannabinoids — 50 U.S. Toxicology Investigators Consortium Registry Sites, 2010–2015. Riederer, A. ScD, et al. Retrieved from

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