Photo by Randy Neilson

Synthetic marijuana substitute soon to be illegal

Most non-prescription, mind-altering substances have been illegal in Utah for decades, and soon Utah Valley residents will lose one more legal way to get high.

At print time, a marijuana substitute commonly called “Spice” can still be found in most hookah or tobacco shops, sold as incense. Just think; for now, anyone can find a high with no more uncomfortable late-night encounters with potentially dangerous drug dealers, no more running from the fuzz, no need to choke down that two-gallon jug of water before your parole officer’s drug test. For now you can spend your afternoon Velcroed to the couch, shoveling Funyuns down your throat and watching viral YouTube videos without threat of incarceration.

Spice is already illegal in just about every European country. It has caught the attention of law enforcement agencies and governments worldwide. It’s quickly becoming subject to more and more scrutiny by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency and other federal bodies. It’s already illegal in 10 states, and at least 13 other states have either proposed legislation against it, or have placed municipal bans on the product.

Utah is historically a big fan of banning things, and it won’t be long until our state is added to the roster of spice-free zones.
Utah County has already passed legislation banning spice in unincorporated areas, while both Weber and Cache counties are pushing similar legislation. Police officers in Salt Lake City conducted a citywide crackdown asking shopkeepers to voluntarily remove spice from their shelves. Now, a bill that creates a state drug advisory panel recommending a statewide ban of the product is awaiting Gov. Gary Herbert’s signature.

Furthermore, the federal government is pushing to designate spice as a “designer drug.” Designer drug is a term used to describe drugs created in the loopholes of existing drug laws. According to the Federal Analog Act, any chemical “substantially similar” to an illegal drug is also illegal. Basically, because spice has similar effects to marijuana, it’s also illegal. However, this only applies to those products that are marketed for human consumption. This is the genius behind spice — because it is marketed as potpourri or incense and technically isn’t meant for human consumption, it works around these existing drug laws. Thus, federal and state governments would have to draft new legislation requiring that spice be added to the DEA’s list of Schedule I substances.

How exactly would this new legislation read? Would the list include those potpourri herbs that I use to keep my bathroom smelling oh-so-clean? If you didn’t already know, herbs and extracts like damiana and skullcap are fairly mild, hardly capable of inducing the strong psychoactive effects that marijuana does. So what exactly in this stuff gets you high?

The question of “how” has not only been on the minds of young stoners everywhere, but scientists at accredited universities and pharmaceutical research institutes worldwide. The answer: synthetic cannabinoids. Back in early 2009, a pharmaceutical research company in Frankfurt, Germany, solved the mystery behind the original “Spice” blend.  The scientists tested several products from the Spice-line and found a substance called JWH-018 in a variety of different chemical forms and concentrations. According to one study, the chemical shows an “affinity to the cannabinoid brain receptor at least five times greater than that of THC.” Again, that means at least five times more powerful than marijuana. While this certainly sounds like one hell of a good time, it also seems kind of dangerous.

When the research company published their discovery of the chemical in Spice, German drug enforcement agencies banned the product and placed a prohibition on JWH-018. Spice responded with a new line of herbal blends. An analysis of samples acquired four weeks after the prohibition found that the compound had been replaced with JWH-073, another THC-analog about three times more powerful than cannabis.

Dozens of different synthetic cannabinoids range from 300-800 times more potent than THC.

Writer Hamilton Morris spoke with John W. Huffman, an organic chemist at Clemson University who first synthesized JWH-018 while working with THC and other analogs of the substance. Students often asked Huffman if they could try some of the compounds on themselves.  Hoffman responded, “Oh, yeah, you’re welcome to.  But we don’t know if they’re poisonous or not.”

Testing on similar synthetic cannabinoids revealed that some are metabolized into carcinogenic metabolites (yes, like the kind that give you cancer). Huffman added “Smoking a compound with unknown biological properties in humans is a pretty stupid thing to do.” He also mentioned that the chemical has no medicinal properties, and that “like LSD, the only thing it is good for is getting you high.”

Another toxicologist, Dr. Anthony Scalzo from Saint Louis University, told the Associated Press that he had seen more than 30 cases of Missouri teenagers having agitation, elevated heart rates, vomiting and other health effects not associated with moderate cannabis use.

In a more recently published article, however, a toxicology experiment was conducted on JWH-018 by a group of researchers. They analyzed the way that the chemical would interact with our genetic code, how cellular activity would respond within the body, and its impact on liver enzymes. They also rounded up a group of rats, dosed them up on the stuff and conducted observations.  In the initial doses, the rats seemed nearly comatose; at high doses, several died. Their deaths, however, were “not related to toxicity from the chemical.” Though the group was still unsure of the long-term side effects, they finally concluded that JWH-018 appears safe for human consumption. They published all of this information online in a large PDF-file, but they did this anonymously.

Unfortunately, the anonymity makes this research much less credible. Now two anonymously published toxicity tests exist on the same chemical, and each publication yields different results. This is a chemical consumed by literally millions of people globally, and it’s impossible for smokers to distinguish whether or not an early-morning wake-and-bake will give them potentially life-threatening malignant lung tumors.

While restrictions on synthetic cannabinoids remain a game of cat and mouse, it won’t be long until a universal ban on Spice is put into effect and it becomes a federally controlled Schedule I substance. Considering the success of pro-marijuana policies legalizing the use of medicinal cannabis in 14 states, the scare about losing spice seems a little out of proportion.