Is CBD Flower the Same as K2? – Synthetic Cannabinoids Explained

Closeup view of CBD flower buds covered in trichomes and orange hairs.

Synthetic cannabinoids like K2 have emerged as “legal” alternatives for marijuana, but just how true is this claim? How do they differ from options like CBD?

CBD flower and other CBD products are not the same thing as synthetic cannabinoids like K2; in fact, they differ significantly in many ways. CBD occurs naturally in cannabis plants, while synthetic cannabinoids are man-made and artificially added to products in a lab.

Synthetic cannabinoids may mirror natural ones in some ways, but they ultimately produce a completely different experience, and one that can become scary very fast. Understanding the legality of these products and just how they manage to stay on the market is complicated, but it helps to first understand just what synthetic cannabinoids are, where they tend to come from, and why they remain a problem to this day.

Synthetic Cannabinoids vs. CBD

The main and most important difference between synthetic cannabinoids and others like CBD is whether the cannabinoid in question is organically-occuring; that is, whether the compound is the natural result of the growth of a cannabis plant or is artificially created and added.

CBD, or cannabidiol, is a natural cannabinoid found in cannabis plants of all sorts, including both marijuana and hemp. CBD, unlike its psychoactive counterpart THC, does not create a “high,” nor is it considered impairing.

Synthetic cannabinoids, on the other hand, do not naturally occur in plants. Instead, these molecules are created by humans, often in lab-like settings, to serve as a “legal” alternative for THC.

These molecular constructions are called cannabinoids because they interact with the endocannabinoid system in the body (the same system that natural cannabinoids also interact with to create bodily effects). 

Synthetic options may mirror actual cannabinoids in some ways, but they are not the same thing, and it’s important to make this distinction for both your health and safety.

What are synthetic cannabinoids used for?

Synthetic cannabinoids, as mentioned, are often utilized or labelled as “legal” versions of marijuana or cannabis. 

The actual legality of these substances is complicated (and discussed more below), but regardless, synthetic cannabinoids are frequently abused.

The two most common uses of synthetic cannabinoids are:

1. Street drugs. Many individuals use and buy synthetic cannabinoids in an attempt to avoid the legal repercussions that come along with marijuana. Spraying synthetic cannabinoids onto some type of plant material and smoking it is a common way individuals get high off of the substance (also referred to as “spice” or “K2,” a popular brand of synthetics). 

2. Creating pharmaceutical drugs. Because pharmaceutical companies can’t patent natural substances (like cannabis and the naturally-occurring cannabinoids found within it), some choose to patent synthetic options so that they can “own” the drug. One example is Marinol, a prescription medication used to treat lack of appetite, nausea, and vomiting. These sorts of medications can be especially problematic for those who already experience substance abuse concerns, as synthetic cannabinoids can be very addictive.

Man sitting on the ground holding a baggy filled with K2 or spice.

Are synthetic cannabinoids legal in the US?

Yes and no; the answer to this question is more nuanced than a simple one-word answer can give, primarily due to the hoops that many manufacturers jump through in order to bypass legal limits that do exist.

The nature of synthetic cannabinoids (man-made, usually in a laboratory-like setting) means that it’s incredibly easy for producers to alter the makeup of substances themselves to avoid legal repercussions.

To elaborate, in 2011, the Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA (in the United States), listed a variety of common synthetic cannabinoids as Schedule 1 Controlled Substances

This classification includes other popular drugs – like heroin, marijuana, ecstasy, and LSD, among others – that do not currently have any accepted medical uses, at least at the federal level. They also have a high potential for abuse.

Such an effort may have worked at first, but because producers have the knowledge to do so, they often alter the chemical structure of their products, even slightly, to create a “new” or alternative substance not explicitly banned by the law.

This means that there’s a virtual infinite amount of possibilities when it comes to the makeup of synthetic cannabinoids – creating so many new ones so often makes it difficult, if not impossible, for law enforcement to keep up.

Many sellers also label products strategically (“not for human consumption,” for instance) to make it even more difficult for them to get into legal trouble.

So, even if the products you find on the market aren’t technically illegal, it’s likely that some degree of untrustworthy activity has taken place in order to avoid these limitations. 

It’s especially important to understand the legality of synthetic cannabinoids like K2 because many individuals who use them believe that they are a legal form of cannabis, or a legal alternative to marijuana. It’s still possible to face legal trouble when purchasing and using synthetic cannabinoids, and they’re significantly more dangerous than many sellers want to let on.

Synthetic Cannabis Toxicity

Unlike natural cannabinoids, which are known to be very safe, synthetic cannabinoids can have nasty side effects and, in the worst case scenario, can even be deadly.

With so many different chemical combinations on the market, it can be very challenging to fully understand what you’re consuming. This fact along with synthetic cannabinoids’ high potential for abuse make it a risky substance for anyone.

Synthetic cannabinoids also tend to produce much more intense effects than naturally-occurring cannabinoids, which can lead to side effects that are scary for both the individual in question and those around them.

Common adverse effects associated with synthetic cannabinoids include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Erratic or violent behavior
  • Paranoia
  • Extreme anxiety
  • Hallucinations
  • Confusion

High levels of synthetic cannabinoids in the body can cause an overdose (when an individual takes “too much” of a substance). Overdoses can cause dangerous reactions that significantly threaten an individual’s safety and wellbeing.

Signs and symptoms that often come with synthetic cannabinoid overdoses include:

  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Reduced blood supply to the heart, which can cause various types of cardiovascular distress or damage (like a heart attack)
  • Stroke
  • Seizures
  • Kidney damage or failure

As mentioned, overdoses can be very dangerous and even deadly. Deadly or debilitating overdoses are even more common when synthetic cannabinoids are laced with or contain other drugs, which is an unfortunately frequent occurrence.

It can be very difficult to choose an appropriate dose of synthetic cannabinoids; the lack of regulation makes it impossible to know that your product is consistent from batch to batch or even know that the label you read is truthful.

That’s why it’s so important to steer clear of these sorts of products altogether. Even if you think you know what you’re doing or how much to take, many of the factors that can cause serious harm are totally out of the user’s hands.

Someone being loaded into an ambulance.

Synthetic Cannabinoid Withdrawal

Synthetic cannabinoids, like we’ve already touched on, are frequently abused, primarily due to their addictive nature.

Unlike naturally-occurring cannabinoids, including CBD, synthetic cannabinoids can cause a physical dependency and addiction that can feel impossible to break free from.

When an individual with a dependency decides to stop using synthetic cannabinoids, they may experience any of the following withdrawal symptoms:

  • Feeling uneasy, anxious, or otherwise distressed
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Sweating and physical discomfort
  • Irritability
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Depression
  • In severe cases, physical symptoms like seizures may occur

Experiencing withdrawal symptoms understandably makes it a lot harder to fully quit, and as a result, many individuals find themselves stuck in a vicious cycle.

Thus, the idea that synthetic cannabinoids are safer than naturally-occurring options is, of course, completely false. 

Fortunately, there are many resources available to support those experiencing an addiction to synthetic cannabinoids, including support groups, therapeutic care, and medical supervision. 

To get in touch with an addiction hotline, call this number: 855-838-0966

Just like any other addictive substance, synthetic cannabinoids can completely take over an individual’s livelihood, so it’s important to take them seriously.

Takeaway: Synthetic Doesn’t Equal Safe

Synthetic cannabinoids like K2 are certainly not the same thing as CBD or other natural cannabinoids. Though the two may cause similar effects, they differ significantly in terms of what they’re made up of, where they come from, and whether they’re actually safe to put into your body.

Synthetic cannabinoids emerged as a supposedly “legal” and “safe” alternative to marijuana and, as such, rose significantly in popularity throughout the past decade or so.

The ability to alter the molecular makeup of these cannabinoids makes it easy for manufacturers to dodge legal trouble, but only at the expense of their customers. Without legal regulation and repercussions, sellers have all the power, and many of them take advantage of it.

Synthetic cannabinoids go by many names – spice, K2, Scooby Snax, Kush, AK-47, and more – and can take on many forms, so it’s crucial to be mindful of what you buy and who you buy from.

Ultimately, it’s not worth risking all of the consequences that can come along with synthetic cannabinoids, even if they’re easy to access. Natural cannabinoids like CBD are safe, easy to monitor and dose properly, and offer a myriad of benefits for both mental and physical health. 

Don’t let yourself be fooled by those looking to exploit the cannabis market for their own profit – being an educated consumer is half the battle. For legal, safe, and effective CBD recommendations, be sure to check out our directory here.

Josh Murdoch

Josh Murdoch

I was born with Cystic Fibrosis, and although it is incurable, CBD and THC have been allowing me to live my life as a healthy adult now for years. For that reason, I’ve dedicated my career to spreading the good news about cannabinoids. Currently, I work for a vertically integrated cannabis company called Unrivaled Brands that operates in California, Oregon, and Nevada. Previously, I worked on two cannabis farms in northern California, one of which was located in the famous Humboldt County. I’ve also managed a medical cannabis delivery service in Marin County, California. I created CBD Facilitator to share what I’ve learned, and to recommend the best products that I have found in this chaotic market.

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