'Synthetic pot' it's not. Bans bring unintended consequences
Don't be fooled.
The designer drugs commonly known as K2 or Spice, are not cannabis and can be very dangerous.
Sold in gas stations and convenience stores under the thin guise of "mood enhancing incense," the chemically-treated herbs are used by unwary consumers who roll it up and smoke it. Urine and blood tests commonly used by employers and hospitals usually can't detect it; which has long been the attraction for Spice huffers.
On the way to making them illegal, politicians and some news organizations have dangerously misinformed the public by labeling the drugs as "synthetic marijuana" and "fake pot."
Again: The truth is there is no marijuana in K2 or Spice products and they do not have the same effect on the human brain as natural Maryjane.
The unfortunate reality is that the laws have little or no impact on general use of these insidious chemicals. Most of the Spice brands contain thousands of chemicals - not just the few that were outlawed - including: synthetic opiates, vitamin E and even acetone. Because authorities have focused on retail outlets, the big spice dealers are simply moving to online sales. They quickly change recipes and package imaging and it all goes back to being technically "legal."
Though well-intentioned, the politics behind the bans point to something disturbing. The new laws for these synthetics have already put a halt to the science we need for the real thing. Research into the medical benefits of cannabis, even profound anticancer properties, has been chilled.
Back in 2010 a large batch of a chemical synthetic drug used by medical laboratories was seized at the UPS shipping facility in the Philadelphia International Airport. The substance, called JWH-018, was invented by a scientist as a tool to experiment on cannabinoid receptors in animals. The confusion between chemical sprays and natural weed started that day when law enforcement and the press labeled it "synthetic marijuana."
The accepted term "marijuana" refers to a plant whose scientific name is cannabis. In 1964 researchers at Hebrew University in Israel discovered the THC molecule in cannabis and linked it to the euphoric effects it produced when smoked or eaten. It wasn't until the 1990s that scientists discovered that humans - and all animals, for that matter - have an entire system within our bodies filled with receptors for these chemicals. So far the CB1, CB2, CB3 and CB4 receptors have been identified and continue to be mapped.
Modern research has uncovered more than 80 different natural cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. Most interesting is that our bodies already produce cannabinoids for these receptors.
Dr. Jahan Marcu is one of the few scientists researching cannabinoids in the United States and has been in the Philadelphia area while completing his doctoral work. Marcu, with whom I have written extensively about the Spice phenomena since 2010, said JWH-018 was once cheap and easy to obtain for laboratory research. Marcu and other scientists used it on mice. But after the state legislatures added JWH-018 and its analogues to the list of Schedule 1 drugs (substances with no legitimate medical use) research has become nearly impossible.
We sat down this week to discuss thew wider scientific implications of the new laws.
PHILLY420: What is the newest research related to K2 Spice?
MARCU: New drugs are appearing, and every now and then the banned drugs are reported to resurface. A report published a few months ago showed that JWH-018 was briefly reported to be back in the market and then vanished. People say it is an arms race with the drug war. I accept that analogy but these days it is more like guerrilla warfare, or even more appropriately it is a hijacking of basic research. New classifications of compounds are also appearing. A compound called URB754 was recently reported as new component of some of these herbal blends. This URB compound inhibits enzymes in the body that break down endocannabinoids, thereby potentially increasing the amount of endocannabinoids in the body.
PHILLY420: How did the ban affect your lab or peers' labs?
MARCU: We simply stopped working with the compound. It became a too big an ordeal for the type of basic research we were conducting.
PHILLY420: Should Spice be labeled "synthetic marijuana"? Why is this term a bad fit?
MARCU: Scientists have published many opinions which state that organic or natural marijuana is much safer that these synthetic designer drugs. The big concern is that people will mistake the safety of cannabis (nontoxic, no risk of overdose) and its effects (time of action, intensity) with drugs that have a completely different pharmacological profile. It's like saying beer and vodka are the same thing - if you drank a pint of either. Additionally, these herbal mixtures of designer drugs can contain synthetic cannabinoids, cathione analogues, tryptamine analogues of LSD, phenethylamines. piperazines, alky nitrates ... and that's just the stuff they have been able to identify.
Many other compounds identified are unknown, or go undetected. And who knows what these turn into once they are set on fire/smoked or metabolized.
These drugs have a few effects that mimic cannabis but many have more effects that have never, or have seldom been, reported with cannabis.
These new drugs interact with receptors in a different way and are metabolized in different ways. What happens to these synthetic drugs after consumption? They do not just magically leave your body, they are turned into different drugs by the liver and other processes. These have actions of their own, and this may account for many negative effects reported.
The acute negative symptoms are easily treatable with Benadryl, according to the case reports that looked at hospital visits from overdoses of Spice. Case reports suggest putting the person suffering from Spice overdose in a room that is not very stimulating and talking to them, and administering Benadryl to calm the person.
Goldstein smoked his first joint in 1994 and has been working to legalize marijuana ever since. He serves on the Board of Directors at PhillyNORML has been covering cannabis news for over a decade. Reach him at email@example.com