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The science of illegality- Synthetic marijuana

Updated on July 12, 2010

The cocaine equation

Here we go again?

The new drug called Spice among other things is also called “synthetic marijuana”. It’s supposed to contain a substance called JWH-018, which is a ringer for cannabinol. The alarm bells are ringing in the predictable places, and yet another illegal drug is in process.

Synthetic marijuana, being a different chemical, doesn’t show up in urine tests. That’s actively increased popularity. Also popular is the fact that Spice can be bought anywhere, legally, and possession is more likely to be legal than not. Arkansas has banned it, and six other states are following suit.

The saga of “herbal highs” from the 70s-90s is being repeated, but with the new chemical, the stakes are higher. Reports of psychotic episodes, including one suicide, have added a further dimension to the issue.

Another legal twist has emerged in Europe. It’s illegal in the European Union, but when marketed as incense, and marked as “not for human consumption”, it’s outside the boundaries of legal enforcement.

The net has been quick to capitalize, and pure versions are available online, called K2, Spice, Genie, and Warlock among other things. The quality of the online and other home made versions is debatable. One batch was found to contain tocopherol, aka Vitamin E. The net result is 567 calls to poison centres in 2010, up from 13 in 2009.

There are some indications that the new cottage industry in manufacturing synthetic marijuana is producing a crack-like rash of imitations, some of which are actually dangerous. Some chemicals can be dangerous when oxidized, and the oxides go straight into the bloodstream.

Most vendors aren’t too worried about impending illegality. Creating different versions not covered by legislation is easier than writing legislation. One vendor told The New York Times recently that there were “hundreds” of these variants. In terms of chemistry, that’s quite correct. The various forms of narcotics, particularly organic narcotics, are always part of a wider family of sources.

The law enforcement problems are obvious, but the potential medical issues aren’t, and that’s now the main concern for both the public and authorities. Illegality is one thing, toxicity is something else. Synthetics add levels of difficulty in any sort of analysis. The practice of synthesizing drugs has so far produced the deadly, unpredictable forms of ice out of methamphetamines, and the epitome of self destruction, crack, out of cocaine.

Those two drugs are now 20 and 30 years old, and they’re still major problems. Synthetic marijuana is showing signs of following the same pattern. It’s a cash product at a time of high unemployment, it’s cheaper than grass, (like crack is cheaper than cocaine) and it therefore has a range of a built-in appeals.

The usual pattern with “legal highs” is that they come and go as fads. Synthetic drugs, however, have a very different pattern. Synthetic marijuana is showing signs of finding a big, regular market, indicating wide acceptance.

Drug facts:

  • Marijuana was originally made illegal in the 1930s at the behest of J. Edgar Hoover after the end of Prohibition. It was described as a drug causing immorality. William Randolph Hearst was another proponent of prohibition. The anti-grass laws created the legal pattern for enforcement.
  • There have been a series of drug wars for the last 80 years, costing billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives.
  • Illegality has never even dented actual drug use. Numbers of users of the various illegal drugs have never been known to decrease.
  • The 1980s saw the first truly toxic, uncontrollable classes of synthetic drugs come on the market.
  • Synthetic drugs have actual medical pathologies, like wastage syndrome and lesions on the face of ice users and wastage and dropping dead in the case of crack users.
  • Drug charges are among the major consumers of US court time.
  • The drug trade is only second to people smuggling, in terms of size.


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    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

      Gosh, some more. Surely there is enough variety on the street to cope with. These people don't have any calm but just making dirty money.