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USDTL Research

A Closer Look at Synthetic Marijuana Use

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Synthetic marijuana has generally been sold over the counter under such labels as Spice and K-2. It usually contains some herbal materials that have been sprayed with one or more of the designer chemicals that fall into the cannabinoid family. Until March 2011, these drugs were not scheduled by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), so they were readily and legally available on the Internet and in convenience stores, head shops, gas stations, etc. However, the DEA scheduled some of the most widely used chemicals beginning March 1, 2011, making their possession and sale no longer legal; subsequent laws have expanded the list of banned chemicals, but producers keep tweaking the chemical formula to avoid control.

Trends in Use

MTF first addressed the use of synthetic marijuana in its 2011 survey by asking 12th graders about their use in the prior 12 months (which would have covered a considerable period of time prior to the drugs being scheduled). Annual prevalence was found to be 11.4%, making synthetic marijuana the second most widely used class of illicit drug after marijuana among 12th graders at that time. Despite the DEA’s intervention, use among 12th graders remained unchanged in 2012 at 11.3%, which suggests either that compliance with the new scheduling had been limited or that producers of these products succeeded in continuing to change their chemical formulas to avoid using the ingredients that had been scheduled. In 2012, for the first time, 8th and 10th graders were asked about their use of synthetic marijuana; their annual prevalence rates were 4.4% and 8.8%, respectively. Use in all 3 grades dropped in 2013, and the decline was sharp and significant among 12th graders. The declines were significant for both 10th and 12th graders in 2014 and they continued into 2015. Annual prevalence in 2015 was down to 3%, 4%, and 5% for the three grades, reflecting a considerable drop in use.

Perceived Risk

All three grades were asked whether they associated great risk with trying synthetic marijuana once or twice. As can be seen above, the level of perceived risk for experimental use was quite low in 2012 (between 24% and 25%) but has risen some among 12th graders, to 33% in 2015. Likely the availability of these drugs over the counter has had the effect of communicating to teens that they must be safe, though they are not. 

Disapproval and Availability have not been measured for this class of drugs.


Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Miech, R. A., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2016). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975-2015: Overview, key findings on adolescent drug use. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan.

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