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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Deadly ‘Pot’ Not Approved by The FDA

Q: Did an FDA-approved form of “synthetic marijuana” lead to recent deaths in Illinois?

A: No. The drugs that have killed four people in the last two months are unregulated and illegal.


Four people have died after using drugs made to imitate the high of marijuana in Illinois over the last two months. That’s true.

It’s not true that the drugs they used were approved by the Food and Drug Administration, as was claimed by a story circulating on Facebook under the headline: “Big Pharma Synthetic Marijuana Leaves 2 Dead, 89 Hospitalized In Illinois.”

The number of those who died is wrong in the headline because the story was copied, for the most part, from a legitimate report that was published on April 6, when that number was accurate.

The recent story that Facebook users flagged as potentially false comes from a site registered to an owner in Pakistan and differs in a couple of important ways from the original. It has a misleading headline (indicating that the drugs were made by regulated pharmaceutical manufacturers) and it starts out with a sentence that is wrong.

It says at the top: “The users ingested an FDA-approved version of synthetic cannabis known as K2 or Spice.”

That’s not true.

The FDA has approved three drugs with synthetic versions of chemicals similar to or the same as those found in marijuana — Marinol, Syndros, and Cesamet can be used to help with nausea from cancer treatments and Marinol and and Syndros can also be used to treat weight loss in AIDS patients. The FDA is currently reviewing another drug related to marijuana that would treat epilepsy.

Neither “K2” nor “Spice” has been approved by the FDA, administration spokesman Michael Felberbaum confirmed.

Not only are they not approved by the FDA, those are two of the most common names under which imitation marijuana is sold. A Drug Enforcement Administration official, Susan Gibson, used them as an example when she testified in front of Congress earlier this year, saying, “Synthetic cannabinoids and their byproducts (sometimes sold under brand names such as K2 or Spice) continue to be a significant threat to public health and safety.”

Synthetic cannabinoids are typically sprayed onto dried plant material and smoked or used in e-cigarettes to achieve a high similar to marijuana, but their effects can be unpredictable and dangerous, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The drugs used in the recent spate of overdoses in Illinois and surrounding states included a chemical found in rat poison, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

NIDA: These chemicals are called cannabinoids because they are similar to chemicals found in the marijuana plant. Because of this similarity, synthetic cannabinoids are sometimes misleadingly called “synthetic marijuana” (or “fake weed”), and they are often marketed as safe, legal alternatives to that drug. In fact, they are not safe and may affect the brain much more powerfully than marijuana; their actual effects can be unpredictable and, in some cases, more dangerous or even life-threatening.

The chemical composition of imitation marijuana can vary, which makes legislating against it difficult, although all 50 states have banned some form of synthetic cannabinoids, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Illinois, imitation marijuana is illegal under two laws — one that was passed specifically to address those drugs and under the state’s Controlled Substances Act, according to Eileen Boyce, spokeswoman for the Illinois attorney general.

In April 2017 the DEA temporarily added chemical compounds often used in imitation marijuana to the list of schedule 1 controlled substances, citing overdoses on the increasingly popular drug as the reason. Those compounds are set to remain on the list until April 10, 2019.

So, if you’ve read the story traveling around Facebook and gotten the impression that people are dying from legal, regulated medications related to marijuana — they’re not. The imitation marijuana that is killing people is unregulated and illegal.

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk false stories flagged by readers on the social media network.


Illinois Department of Public Health. WARNING: Synthetic Cannabinoids Linked to Bleeding. Accessed 17 May 2018.

Big Pharma Synthetic Marijuana Leaves 2 Dead, 89 Hospitalized In Illinois.” Trendsadays.com. 15 May 2018.

Tomoski, Miroslav. “89 hospitalized and 2 dead in Illinois after using synthetic marijuana.” Herb.co. 6 Apr 2018.


Felberbaum, Michael. Spokesman, Food and Drug Administration. Interview with FactCheck.org. 17 May 2018.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. Drug facts — Synthetic Cannabinoids (K2/Spice). Feb 2018.

National Conference of State Legislatures. Emerging Drug Threats. 7 Jun 2017.

Illinois Department of Public Health. “Fourth Death Related to Synthetic Cannabinoids.” 24 Apr 2018.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Outbreak Alert: Potential Life-Threatening Vitamin K-Dependent Antagonist Coagulopathy Associated With Synthetic Cannabinoids Use. 5 Apr 2018.

Boyce, Eileen. Spokeswoman, Illinois Office of the Attorney General. Interview with FactCheck.org. 17 May 2018.

Federal Register. Schedules of Controlled Substances: Temporary Placement of Six Synthetic Cannabinoids (5F-ADB, 5F-AMB, 5F-APINACA, ADB-FUBINACA, MDMB-CHMICA and MDMB-FUBINACA) into Schedule I. 10 Apr 2017.

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FDA-approved "synthetic marijuana" leads to deaths in Illinois.
Tuesday, May 15, 2018