Synthetic marijuana, or fake pot, is a chemical compound is sold legally under the guise of herbal incense, especially in smoke shops, convenience stores and gas stations, under such brand names as Spice, Galaxy Gold, Mr. Nice Guy, K-2, fake weed, Yukatan, Skunk, Moon Rocks, Demon, Genie. It looks like potpourri. The FBI puts its price at $20 to $50 for 3 grams.
The Palm Coast City Council is considering regulating or banning synthetic marijuana, and hoping to encourage other local governments to do likewise.
Although it is referred to as synthetic marijuana or fake pot, it has very little in common with actual marijuana, whose harmful effects are limited. Synthetic marijuana is a cocktail of often changing chemicals that have not been tested nor broadly studied for safe human use and that may have potentially more toxic and lethal effects than natural marijuana. Based on emergency room visits by users, the fake marijuana triggers a variety of reactions, including hallucinations, paranoia, elevated heart rate, seizures, vomiting, agitation and confusion, among other symptoms.
The federal National Institute on Drug Abuse cautions that so far, “there have been no scientific studies of Spice’s effects on the human brain.” But while the compounds in fake marijuana act on the same brain receptors as does the psychoactive component of marijuana, some of the compounds in the synthetic mixtures “bind more strongly to those receptors, which could lead to a much more powerful and unpredictable effect. Because the chemical composition of many products sold as Spice is unknown, it is likely that some varieties also contain substances that could cause dramatically different effects than the user might expect,” the institute warns.
“We still do not know all the ways Spice may affect human health or how toxic it may be, but one public health concern is that there may be harmful heavy metal residues in Spice mixtures. Without further analyses, it is difficult to determine whether this concern is justified,” the institute concludes.
Packages of fake marijuana usually warn that the herbs are not for human consumption. But they also make false claims—that the material is taken from natural psychoactive material. That’s not quite the case. The plants included in the packaging are window dressing, or carriers of the active chemical ingredients, which are not natural.
Three of the chemical compound originated in a lab at Clemson University, where chemist John Huffman developed K2 as a synthetic version of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, to replicate the narcotic effects of the plant—on animals. Huffman told the New York Times that the chemicals were not intended for human use, that the lab had developed them for research purposes only, and that “their effects in humans have not been studied and they could very well have toxic effects.”
“Synthetic cannabinoids are made in a lab that have one effect in common with marijuana but potentially many other different effects,” Robert Hoffman, director of New York’s Poison Control Center, told Metro, the news site. “They are sold as herbal products, giving users a perception of safety. But, in fact, they are toxic drugs sprayed on plant leaves.”
But Huffman’s formulas were published in scientific journals. Entrepreneurs have made use of them. The commercial use of fake marijuana first emerged in Europe in 2004 and has gained popularity in the United States since, drawing the attention of police, health departments and, of course, users. The products, the Drug Enforcement Administration claims, are marketed as “legal” alternatives to marijuana and packaged without information as to their health and safety risks.
The issue gained prominence when, in October 2011, Louisiana State University suspended cornerbacks Tyrann Mathieu—a 2011 finalist for the Heisman Trophy—and Tharold Simon and tailback Spencer Ware from the team after they tested positive for synthetic pot.
In March 2011, the DEA used its emergency authority to ban, for at least a year, five chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana products. Last March, the DEA proposed banning them permanently by placing them on the list of Schedule I controlled substance. The five chemicals don’t have recognizable names: JWH-018, JWH-200, JWH-073, CP-47,497 and cannabicyclohexanol. Several European countries have banned one or more of the compounds.
In late March 2012, the New York City and New York State health departments banned the sale of synthetic marijuana, which meant that all stores selling fake pot had to remove it from their shelves. Synthetic pot had been available in New York for about three years.
One of the potential problems with synthetic marijuana, an FBI bulletin notes, is the inability to identify the substances or recognize the immediate effects they may have on an individual. “One report suggested that the aroma of synthetic marijuana contains elements of mustard, tarragon, oregano, and pepper, with additional similarity to ‘stale lavender…like an antique shop,’” the bulletin states. “The same report also indicated that smoke from synthetic marijuana ‘smelled nothing like marijuana smoke.’ This type of information may aid in the identification of synthetic marijuana. With the recent ban of the chemicals associated with synthetic marijuana, law enforcement officers also should be trained to identify the substances and the dangers associated with them. Medical officials should share information with police officers, particularly school resource officers, in hopes that the spread of knowledge will aid in efforts aimed at prevention and treatment of abuse.”
The prevalence of synthetic pot may be overstated, at least for now. Evidence of its use, of its harmful use especially, is based only on anecdotal reports, not on hard, scientific examination of the drug. Its use in the general population may also be quite limited, at least for now.
The annual Monitoring the Future survey financed by the National Institutes of Health examines the use by middle and high school students of some 16 drugs and their variants, including inhalants. The survey did not start analyzing the uses of synthetic marijuana until 2011, and only for 12th graders—and only for past-year use, which is not comparable to past-month use. The survey found that 11.4 percent of 12th graders had used synthetic marijuana at least once in the previous 12 months. That compares to 36.4 percent for 12th graders using marijuana at least once in the previous 12 months, 15.2 percent using prescription drugs of any kind, 63.5 percent reporting drinking, and 42.2 percent reporting being drunk.
Perspective is important. While the 2011 survey found that there is curiosity about synthetic marijuana, the popularity of most other drugs has waned, especially among students wanting or willing to try something new. There’s been declines in interest in crack, cocaine, over-the-counter cough and cold medicines, sedatives, tranquilizers and prescription drugs.
The report also found that the United States had the second-lowest proportion of students who used tobacco and alcohol compared to counterparts in 36 European countries. Some 12 percent of students had smoked at least once in the 30 days prior to the survey, and 27 percent had had an alcoholic drink. Of the 46,000 students surveyed nationwide, 18 percent of 8th, 10th and 12th graders reported using marijuana or hash at least once in the previous 30 days. (The survey’s full results are available here.)
More students are using marijuana than smoking cigarettes, analysis believe, because they consider marijuana less harmful. American students reported the highest level of marijuana availability of all the countries and the lowest proportion of students associating great risk with its use.
“One of the reasons that smoking and drinking rates among adolescents are so much lower here than in Europe is that both behaviors have been declining and have reached historically low levels in the U.S. over the 37-year life of the Monitoring the Future study,” Lloyd Johnston, the principal investigator of the surveys, said. “But even in the earlier years of the European surveys, drinking and smoking by American adolescents was quite low by comparison. “Use of illicit drugs is quite a different matter.”
It is also notable that synthetic marijuana may not be as recent a phenomenon as the 2000s. On Oct. 27, 1967, the New York Times ran a report, titled “Psychologist Fears Underworld Will Sell Synthetic Marijuana,” in which a National Institute of Mental Health psychologist warns of reports of synthetic marijuana on the streets. “I am just going on logic at this time,” he told the paper, “but I believe there is a very big potential market for synthetic marijuana, and big illegal markets attract big illegal operators.”
In that case, the synthetic marijuana was an odorless liquid that had been developed in Israel and tested at a public hospital in Lexington, Ky. Just as with the work Clemson’s Huffman conducted, those formulas were published in scientific journals. “The trouble with the stuff right now is that it is quite expensive to make,” Mitchell Balter, the psychologist, said at the time. “But I am sure with good old American ingenuity that the price can be sharply reduced.”