Synthetic marijuana drugs face legal ban
Published: Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, September 7, 2011 13:09
Marijuana is often referred to with slang words such as weed, hash and pot. The less familiar K2, Spice, Magma, Blueberry Haze and Genie do not fall into this category of jargon.
These particular words are names for brands of synthetic marijuana, an herbal product sprayed with chemicals that reproduce the effects of THC (tetrahydrocannibol), the active chemical in marijuana. It is illegal to sell synthetic replacements for banned substances like marijuana, which is why these products are usually labeled as "incense" and identified as unsafe for human consumption. Even so, sellers and buyers alike share an understood relationship in which both parties know the purpose of the products.
Synthetic marijuana products appeared on the market not long after John W. Huffman, an organic chemist at Clemson University, managed to synthesize the THC compound in 1995.
In past interviews, Huffman claimed that he created this innovative chemical, known as JWH-018, solely for research purposes. The project focused on the effects of THC on two endocannabinoid receptors of the brain: CB1, which creates the effects of being high and CB2, which influences pain and inflammation. Nonetheless, enterprising chemists found other ways to profit from JWH-018.
The main attraction of synthetic drugs over marijuana has been legality. However, in the past two years several states, not including Massachusetts, have made laws to ban the synthetic marijuana products. Strong public opinion against synthetic marijuana was fueled by the growing calls to poison control centers, which revealed the chemicals caused unpredictable and dangerous side effects such as convulsions, anxiety attacks, dangerously elevated heart rates and vomiting. In June 2010, 18-year-old David Rozga from Iowa committed suicide after experiencing a K2 high. It was the first death allegedly caused by the quasi-marijuana product.
Before bans on the sale and purchase of synthetic marijuana, products like K2 and Spice were sold openly in head shops (drug paraphernalia shops), online and even in gas stations.
A Northampton head shop on Main Street, Shop Therapy, was one local business that carried the laced herbal incense. "We don't really sell synthetic anymore," said a Shop Therapy manager, who declined to give his name. "We pulled it, but when we were selling it, we made people aware that it was synthetic THC. It is made in a lab."
"You are probably better off buying a bag of pot somewhere," he said, "but [synthetic marijuana] is a fad. People wanted it and liked it."
According to a Shop Therapy sales clerk, who also did not provide his name, customers had to explicitly ask for the product, which was never in public display. The prices ranged from $15 to $40. He said that customers purchased synthetic marijuana mostly because it does not register in drug tests.
In an attempt to control synthetic marijuana products, in March 2010 the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued an official ban on five chemical compounds used in K2 and other popular synthetic marijuana brands. The sale and purchase of any product with these compounds remains temporarily illegal for one year while their effects and dangers are further researched. Despite this, dynamic chemists have created other compounds similar to JWH-018 that are not banned by the DEA. As a result, new reformulated products, like K6, remain on the market today.
Synthetic marijuana's increasingly negative reputation may be the reason why local businesses like Shop Therapy decided to pull the products off their shelves, but other Northampton business owners refused to carry them in the first place.
"I think it's a bunch of junk, personally," said Jon Sheeley, owner of The Hempest. "In my opinion, if I was going to smoke something I'd rather go for the natural form than some chemed-up stuff from a laboratory."
Sheeley said although The Hempest customers often request synthetic marijuana, he does not want to support these products.
"I just feel like I don't really want that crowd coming in here," Sheeley said. "We are a hemp store. I'd rather promote hemp and other forms of cannabis, not the lab-made form."
The owner of The Mercantile, another specialty shop across from Shop Therapy, also refuses to carry any synthetic marijuana products. "I don't like it," he said. "This artificial stuff is probably worse than the real thing."
Despite these criticisms, the Shop Therapy manager remained pragmatic in his opinion of synthetic marijuana. "I think anything has bad side effects," he said. "People are going to do drugs. If it is not synthetic marijuana, then it is something else. People will just find a way to get high."