Synthetic pot: What is it and is it legal?

Marijuana, News, Rights

Last year, it was revealed that Seattle Seahawks fullback Derrick Coleman had smoked something called “synthetic marijuana” in October 2015 before being involved in a vehicular hit-and-run. More recently, the Boston Globe reported that New England Patriots defensive lineman Chandler Jones had an adverse reaction to what was also described as synthetic marijuana, and had to be stabilized in the emergency room.

What is this stuff, and why would anyone bother with it? Turns out that even as more states legalize recreational pot, powerful incentives remain for finding alternatives, even ones that are demonstrably dangerous.

History of synthetic pot

“Synthetic cannabis” was a byproduct of the work of researchers in the 1990s who sought to isolate and test the chemicals in marijuana (cannabinoids) for their potential in clinical applications. Although the chemical compound groups derived from cannabis research have been made illegal, they are still widely found in samples of synthetic pot. For instance, one of these synthetic cannabinoids, JWH-018, was found to be the primary drug ingredient in the earliest versions of the herbal product known as Spice.

The term “Spice” is now used by medical journals and law enforcement agencies as a catch-all for synthetic cannabis products, though the compounds differ greatly from one “brand” to the next. “There appears to be substantial variability in the specific compounds and concentrations of the synthetic cannabinoids found in commercial products, even within the same ‘brand,’” notes a study published in Adolescent Psychology. The wide variability of compounds found in synthetic cannabis products makes it difficult for users to adequately gauge safe dosages.

Furthermore, the cannabinoids found in synthetic pot have pharmacological effects 2 to 100 times more potent than those found in natural marijuana. Frequent modifications of existing compounds by underground laboratories make it difficult for medical researchers and law enforcement to address the health and regulatory challenges adequately.

So if the compounds found in synthetic cannabis are more dangerous than those found in natural marijuana, why would professional athletes—and others—use synthetic pot instead of the real thing? Millions of people, particularly athletes, are routinely asked to pass drug tests, and many (often mistakenly) believe that unlike natural marijuana, synthetic varieties aren’t detected by standard drug tests. Also, while recreational pot legalization has made pot easier to acquire in some states, ongoing prohibition in other parts of the country increase the appeal of synthetic cannabis products, which skirt drug laws by being sold as potpourri, herbal mixtures, incense, or other items labeled “not for human consumption.”

Untraceable? Not quite

Much of the popularity of synthetic cannabis among its users is reflected in the ongoing perception that these compounds cannot be traced in drug screenings, such as urine tests. This helps explain the recent high-profile hospitalizations in the world of professional sports. One University of Washington study found that drug users in the U.S. Army were twice as likely to smoke synthetic over normal cannabis, further indicating that the desire to pass drug tests might be a motivating factor.

But the testing technology is catching up fast. The failure of drug screenings to detect synthetics was widely reported in the medical literature of 2013, and continues to be echoed by tabloids seeking to conjure horror stories of untraceable drug use. In reality, drug screening companies have become more adept at isolating synthetic compounds in conventional tests, potentially eliminating one of the primary rationales for using these dangerous drugs.

Legal status

The challenge for the government is to regulate chemicals that are as difficult to control as adhesives, solvents, over-the-counter medicines and other products that are often abused for cheap highs. Meanwhile, employers, schools, and worried parents have to grapple with the appeal of drugs that are reputed to be undetectable.

All major groups of synthetic cannabinoids developed in the 1990s were declared Schedule I controlled substances in the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012. The bill gives the DEA responsive oversight to quickly add new strains of these compounds to the controlled substances index without Congressional action.

While the world might still be in the midst of a synthetic cannabinoid “epidemic,” it appears that the worst is behind us. With improved education and the increasing decriminalization of medical and recreational marijuana, the illicit use of synthetic cannabinoids may be on the wane. Of greater concern are the highly addictive stimulants and euphoriants found in the products marketed as “bath salts,” which advertise effects similar to crystal meth, cocaine, ecstasy, or heroin.

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