Synthetic Marijuana

One area of law that has sprung into existence within the last six years is the regulation of “synthetic” marijuana. Before 2010, this class of drugs was not very well-known and went unaddressed by state and federal law.

North Carolina has banned the sale, manufacture or possession of “synthetic” marijuana since 2011. This classification of drug goes by many different names, including Spice, K2, Skunk, Black Mamba, Moon Rocks, and fake weed.

Synthetic marijuana is often mass-marketed as a safer and more legal alternative to cannabis. Both of these traits are misleading, however.

State Legality

In North Carolina, synthetic cannabis and “natural” cannabis are both classified as Schedule VI controlled substances. Schedule VI substances in North Carolina are those the legislature has deemed have no medical use but a very low risk of addiction.

  • A first offense possession conviction for a half-ounce or less of synthetic cannabis is a Class 3 misdemeanor for which you cannot receive time in jail. You will still receive a fine and criminal record though.

  • Possession of more than one-half of an ounce of synthetic cannabis is a Class 1 misdemeanor for which you can receive up to 120 days in jail, depending on your criminal record.

Federal Legality

Despite constant emerging science demonstrating the therapeutic medical benefits of natural marijuana maladies and the number of states that have followed suit and legalized it, marijuana is controversially also still classified under federal law as a Schedule I controlled substance. This class is reserved for drugs that have no medical use and a high abuse potential.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has also exercised its emergency scheduling authority twice in recent years to designate eight different types of synthetic cannabis that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has found should be Schedule I controlled substances.

  • Simple first possession of a synthetic cannabinoid that includes one of the eight different classes identified by the CDC carries federal charges of up to one year and/or a $1,000.

  • If the defendant has one prior drug conviction the sentence is up to two (2) years and a minimum $2,500 fine; two prior drug convictions, and the sentence jumps to a maximum of three (3) years and $5,000 minimum fine.


In addition to being just as illegal as marijuana, synthetic cannabis is by no means safer. In fact, reports thus far suggest just the opposite. Natural marijuana gets its mind-altering effects from THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). Synthetic marijuana does not consist of one particular ingredient or brand, but rather consists of leftover plant material sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids, a family of over 700 different man-made research chemicals (which are then erroneously marketed to consumers as being “all natural.”) Although these chemicals are similar to THC, they affect the brain much differently.

Synthetic marijuana seems to affect some of the same areas of the brain as THC does, but in much stronger and less predictable ways. Some synthetic cannabinoids are reportedly as much as 100 times stronger than THC. Users have reported psychotic episodes, seizures, hallucinations, uncontrollable bodily movements, and extreme paranoia and anxiety far exceeding the typical paranoia side effects some marijuana users report. Synthetic marijuana is also notably different from natural cannabis in that it is apparently possible to die from an overdose of some types of synthetic marijuana. The CDC attributed the deaths of at least 15 people in a six-month span in 2015 to synthetic marijuana.

Outlawing Synthetic Cannabinoids

The sheer number of synthetic cannabinoids has made the process of illegalizing them difficult and ever-evolving. Despite the DEA’s efforts to add types of synthetic marijuana to the Schedule I list, manufacturers of synthetic marijuana continue to create new ingredients that are not yet banned by federal law and sell them marketed as being not for human consumption.

North Carolina law attempts to cover these potential gaps and bans all substances that could be classified as synthetic marijuana. It lists 10 different sub-types of substances that do classify as synthetic marijuana, but is careful to point out that the list is illustrative and is not intended to be inclusive.

If you or someone you love is facing charges of synthetic marijuana possession or distribution, it is important that you retain a dedicated and experienced criminal defense attorney to fight for your rights. Our attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC have experience defending individuals facing drug possession charges at both the state and federal levels. Please contact us today for a free consultation. Time is of the essence when defending against criminal charges.