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A new "synthetic marijuana" most commonly called K2 or "spice," also known as fake weed, crazy clown, black mamba, Yucatan Fire, Moon Rocks, Smack! and other names is becoming increasingly popular in the USA and in a few other countries around the world. It is a mixture of herbs and chemicals that are individually legal and intended to mimic the effects of cannabinoids, primarily THC, in marijuana. 

In the US, about 7 percent of teenagers have tried it by the age of 18, and about 22 percent of young adults have tried it by the age of 23. Young people who use K2 tend to be those who also use hookahs and who are "into" binge drinking. Some people use synthetic marijuana so they can pass a urine test for marijuana use for an upcoming job interview. The fact that the federal government made the product illegal in 2011 had essentially no effect on how many people use it.

Most people who use K2 are introduced to the product by their friends. A survey found that:

  • 76 percent of users first got the product from a friend.
  • 57 percent of users got their second hit from a convenience store.
  • 43 percent of users get their K2 at gas stations.
  • 19 percent of users buy K2 from their marijuana dealer.

It's usually "safer" to buy K2 than to buy other drugs. When users get the product, they may smoke it as a blunt (usually), add it to a joint, or inhale it through a bong, a pipe, or even a vaporizer. K2 is almost exclusively a drug used by people under the age of 30, although chronic marijuana users of all ages use it to take the edge off withdrawing from marijuana. The drug is not financially ruinous. Most users spend less than $40 a week.

The first thing to take into consideration when buying this product is that it isn't handcrafted by nuns who collect the herbal ingredients in their organic gardens to raise money for an orphanage. 

About the best thing that can be said about some brands of K2 is that it is accurately labeled as "not fit for human consumption." It's generally not. That doesn't mean you won't get kind of a high when you use it.

K2 is sometimes used as "incense," a little like a hallucinogenic potpourri, and sometimes mixed with marijuana as a "marijuana helper."  Whether or not it actually contains cannabinoids, the active ingredients in marijuana that get you high, is kind of a crap shoot. Some batches will contain chemicals that get you a "higher high" than 9-delta-tetradhydrocannabinol in actual marijuana. The chemicals that act on the cannabinoid receptors in your brain when you smoke pot have a limited ability to activate those receptors. The chemicals in about 40 percent of K2 mixtures tested have the ability to completely activate the same receptors. The chemicals in about 60 percent of batches of K2 don't have this potency at all, so regular users cut them with the real herb.

The reason public health officials are concerned about K2 isn't just that they don't like drugs. The problem is that they don't like drugs that have unpredictable effects. 

Among users of K2, most of whom use it two or three times a week, certain problems are common:

  • 38 percent reported trouble thinking clearly.
  • 24 percent get headaches.
  • 19 percent suffer anxiety between hits.
  • 14 percent have to deal with heavy sweating and body odor.
  • 10 percent suffer panic attacks between hits.
  • 5 percent have a problem with dry cough.
  • 5 percent develop severe fatigue.

Using K2 won't make you go crazy. There are few or no reports of hallucinations, paranoia, or depression among users of the drug. Almost no one gets nausea when taking it or when coming off it.

If those were the only problems, public health officials would not be as concerned as they are. However, a bad batch can result in liver failure. Without a transplant, and transplants are not easy to arrange, death inevitably follows. The main concern the regulators have with the product is it's potentially dangerous. It's also potentially ineffective, about 60 percent of the time.

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