Across the country, people are dying from using untested, dangerous drugs that attempt to mimic marijuana. Ironically, there’s evidence that the public health emergency is being fueled specifically by the ongoing criminalization of real marijuana.
Synthetic cannabinoids — known under a variety of names like spice, K2, or scooby snacks — are typically synthesized in foreign laboratories and sprayed onto a mix of inactive herbs, then sold with no mention of the active ingredients or their strength. Congress and state legislatures are trying to keep up with banning the baffling array of new chemicals being introduced by clandestine chemists, but that may actually be leading to the creation of newer, even more dangerous chemicals that we know even less about.
In April alone, about 1,000 people made poison control calls about the synthetic cannabinoid drugs. Several states have seen a rise in hospitalizations due to the drugs, which have been linked to long-term delusions, violent behavior, seizures, heart attacks, strokes, damage to the kidneys and liver, and several deaths. Doctors say the recent rash of hospitalizations could be the result of a new drug in circulation, MAB-CHMINACA, but the sheer number of chemicals used at various times in various products makes it impossible to pin health problems on any one substance.
ForensicToxGuy, a pseudonymous forensic toxicologist and drug chemist, runs the blog The Dose Makes The Poison, which covers the chemicals of the synthetic drug world. In an email exchange with ThinkProgress, he described synthetic cannabinoids as “diverse chemical grab bags of unknown pharmacological and toxicological profile.”
“When it comes to consuming the herbal blends/incense blends/potpourri products out there, I say that they are products containing substances of unknown identity with unknown pharmacological and toxicological effects in unknown combinations at unknown dosages,” he explained.
Synthetic cannabinoids were born from pot prohibition. Clemson University organic chemist John W. Huffman created hundreds of synthetic cannabinoids starting in the 1980s because researchers had such a hard time getting actual marijuana for research. Though President Obama recently expressed support for reclassifying it, marijuana is still a Schedule I drug, meaning it’s very difficult for researchers to study legally. These compounds were similar enough to use in studies, and researchers could actually obtain them. “I always had a hunch that someday somebody would say: ‘Hey, let’s try smoking them.’,” Huffman has said since. “And lo and behold, that’s what happened.”
Today, synthetic pot appeals to people who cannot use marijuana for various reasons surrounding its illegality: They are regularly drug tested, they want to avoid arrest, they find synthetics to be more affordable, or they simply can’t find an illegal dealer.
JWH-018, which bears Huffman’s initials, was the first of these substances to appear as a recreational drug in 2008 in Germany. Since then, countries and U.S. states have banned hundreds of similar chemicals, but manufacturers keep tweaking chemical structures, creating a bewildering list of totally new drugs. “The chemical diversity in structure of these compounds is amazing,” ForensicToxGuy wrote on his site. “Take a bit of substance A and mix it with this bit from substance B and add it all together with this group from substance C. Voila! We have new alphabet soup compound D!”
The drive to criminalize new synthetic cannabinoids might even be making the problem worse. While the early JWH compounds were not well-tested, we know more about them than we do the latest chemicals developed to skirt the law. “There were hospitalizations and deaths associated with the earlier waves of compounds,” ForensicToxGuy wrote in an email, “but anecdotally there seems to be a noticeable increase in emergency department presentations, hospitalizations, and deaths associated with these later waves of compounds.”
Meanwhile, marijuana overdose is not known to have caused a single death, and it is not known to cause any major health consequences even after humans have used it for hundreds of years.
“While I do not condone illicit drug use, I do believe that marijuana is ‘safer’ in a sense than synthetic cannabinoid substances,” ForensicToxGuy told ThinkProgress. “Even though we are learning more every day about marijuana and its effects through research, we have a long history with it and know quite a bit about its pharmacology and toxicology. We know nothing about synthetic cannabinoids.”
A Monitoring The Future survey of high school seniors is the best comparison of marijuana usage versus spice usage we have. It found that thirty-six percent of high school seniors had used marijuana in the past year, while only eleven percent had used spice. Even though spice is used at a far lower rate than marijuana, it resulted in more than 2,500 more calls to poison control centers, and they had far more serious negative health outcomes, including three deaths. And those are just the negative outcomes and deaths that were reported to poison control centers.
In addition to a lack of evidence for negative health effects caused by marijuana, there’s no evidence it results in risky behavior. In fact, while a Swiss study found that people who consumed alcohol had two-hundred fifty percent the normal risk of being injured and heavy alcohol consumption increased that risk to two thousand five hundred twenty percent, a person who consumed marijuana recently is less likely to be injured than normal.
So far, three states and Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and 20 more have medical programs, which should serve to lessen the demand for dangerous synthetic drugs. Nearly all users say they prefer marijuana to drugs like spice, and that preference could only be improved by better informing the public on the comparative risks.
But even when marijuana is legal, workplace drug testing can push people to seek out new, legal drugs, or ones that aren’t detected in tests — putting themselves at higher risk of harming their health.
John W. Huffman is now a fierce critic of the recreational use of the drugs he created, and he advocates for the legalization of marijuana to make them less popular. “I talked to a marijuana provider from California, a doctor, a physician,” Huffman told ABC News back in 2011, “and he said that in California, that these things are not near the problem they are in the rest of the country simply because they can get marijuana… And marijuana is not nearly as dangerous as these compounds.”
“We declared marijuana illegal in 1937,” he said in the same interview. “Now that really did a lot of good to keep people from smoking marijuana, didn’t it? I think it should be legalized, it should be sold only to people 21 and older, it should be heavily, heavily taxed.”