A marvel of chemical innovation? Or a dangerous capitalization on a legal loophole? Synthetic cannabis, reverse-engineered to mimic the effects of weed, has gained international popularity in the last decade. Commonly known as K2 or Spice -- two brand names under which the substance is packaged and sold -- it can have wildly unpredictable effects and has triggered a public health crisis. The emergence of synthetic cannabis as a technically legal alternative to marijuana products has highlighted the remarkable ingenuity -- and remarkable hazards -- of applied science in sidestepping government regulations to meet a very real demand. Strictly speaking, “synthetic cannabis” is a misnomer. Rather than recreating the cannabis plant itself, illicit producers create synthetic chemicals, or cannabinoids, which are then sprayed onto herbal blends that resemble cured, ground-up weed. Unlike the real thing, this synthetic cannabis can be dangerous and erratic.
Common side effects of smoking the unpredictable drug include increased heartbeat and blood pressure, blurred vision, hallucinations, and even epileptic seizure.
It has been linked to at least one overdose death and studies suggest that its use may result in the stimulation of long-term psychosis. Nevertheless, use of synthetic cannabis persists, with the substance widely available in head shops and convenience stores. It exists in a legal gray area, undefined by (and mostly unanticipated by) current statutes.
So-called designer drugs, created to evade prosecution, are not a recent phenomenon. When morphine and other potent opioids were banned in several countries by the International Opium Convention of 1925, many chemical derivatives rushed to fill the void and satisfy wide public consumption. Similarly, the criminalization of LSD and other hallucinogens in the 1960s and 70s led to the popularization of similar lab-created substances like DOM and ALD-52. Even MDMA has roots as a substitute intoxicant, originally synthesized by Merck scientists as an anticoagulant but popularized in the U.S. as an ersatz hallucinogen and amphetamine. The legal challenge posed by all of these substances is one of efficiency: governments simply cannot identify and classify dangerous synthetic drugs as quickly as underground manufacturers are able to sell them. Cannabinoids are the naturally occurring compounds in cannabis responsible for its various effects on the human body and mind. Synthetic versions of these cannabinoids, like most designer drugs, were born in controlled research environments. Manmade compounds that mimic the structure of THC (the cannabinoid responsible for most of weed’s psychoactivity) were first synthesized in 1940 by Roger Adams, a chemist appointed by the newly-formed U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics as part of their efforts to study cannabis and enforce its prohibition. In the 1990s, more refined THC analogs were keys to the scientific testing and mapping of the human cannabinoid system -- the network of receptive cells throughout the body that process cannabinoids and manifest all of the effects that make cannabis so popular.
Synthetic Cannabis in Your Town
According to a United Nations report, it wasn’t until 2008 or 2009 that illicit synthetic cannabis products began hitting black markets worldwide. Although straightforward, the supply chain economics of the synthetic cannabis phenomenon exist on a massive scale, involving multiple international entities. As reported by Vice on HBO, cannabinoids are manufactured en masse in Chinese laboratories. The chemicals are available wholesale to producers around the world who use them to infuse packages of plant matter. The final product can be sold for a staggering profit. Unlike many other synthetic drugs, synthetic cannabis has proven particularly difficult to stamp out. Displayed in convenience stores and bodegas alongside candy, incense, and sexual enhancement supplements, packets of synthetic cannabis can appear normalized and non-threatening. Priced low at anywhere from $5 to $15 for the equivalent of an eighth of an ounce, they also appeal to those who can’t otherwise access or afford cannabis. Although some varieties bear a printed ‘18 and older’ restriction, such prohibitions are not as prominent as those on cigarette packaging -- and are often not enforced by vendors. Furthermore, relaxed cultural attitudes towards weed may play some part in synthetic cannabis’ proliferation. As genuine cannabis is increasingly perceived as harmless and even beneficial, it may be easy to dismiss “knockoff” varieties as even more innocent. Such attitudes belie the unpredictability of the synthetic menace. With no access to a printed list of ingredients, users expose themselves to any combination of 150 known synthetic cannabinoids, each of which might induce a different effect or symptom.
Ending the Epidemic
The standard approach towards prohibition of synthetic cannabis relies on legislation banning some of the most commonly produced compounds -- primarily, JWH-018.
However, because of the adaptability of the chemical structures that act on human cannabinoid receptors, new synthetic cannabinoids can be created to slip through the cracks of what turn out to be shortsighted laws.
Both Russia and the U.K. have passed ad-hoc laws banning lists of specific compounds, but new substances have cropped up to sidestep the regulations. In Russia, the Kremlin has even considered giving drug control agents on the ground the power to ban specific synthetic cannabinoids as they’re discovered in real time. Australia, in an effort to avoid piecemeal solutions, has issued more broad legislation, prohibiting the production and sale of entire categories of psychoactive compounds; however, the generically-written content of these Australian laws can conceivably encompass less harmful substances like caffeine or nicotine. In the United States, individual states have ratified measures that ban some of the more common synthetic cannabinoids. Again, though, chemistry evades easy categorization, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration continues to expand its list of specific prohibited compounds. It remains to be seen whether the surging tide of cannabis legalization will have an impact on harmful substances like Spice and K2. Spain provides some hopeful evidence. The country, which tolerates the growth, possession, and consumption of cannabis on private property, has no laws regulating synthetic cannabis; its liberal cannabis policies render dangerous synthetic substitutes irrelevant. And although the U.S. may be a far way from full-scale federal legalization, conditions on the street -- like the July 2016 Spice-related hospitalization of 33 people in a single Brooklyn neighborhood -- beg for fast, comprehensive action.