High Science: Synthetic Marijuana Is Legal, and It Might Get You High -- But Is It Safe?
Anthony Jones grabs a pinch of fluffy green herbs and stuffs it into the bowl of his glass pipe. The pipe, decorated with bright orange, wavy lines, is coated on the inside with layers of thick, dark resin.
It's well used. Jones empties the bowl with one long, hard draw and blows out a cloud of thick, white, musty smoke. "That was my fourth bowl today," he says, packing a fifth.
It's nearly noon on a Tuesday, and Jones says he's been getting high for the past two hours. He feels as though he's smoked several bowls of high-grade marijuana, but what he's really been smoking are "herbal incense blends," commonly known as "spice," that contain various synthetic cannabinoids — chemical compounds made in research labs that produce effects similar to Delta-9 tetrahydracannabinol (better known as THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
Niki D'Andrea feature
Jones started smoking spice regularly about a year ago. He works in the head shop industry and heard about it from co-workers. Because spice was widely available on the Internet and head shops around town, he didn't hesitate to try it.
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The first time Jones smoked spice, he said it hit him like a punch in the face. "I was amazed," he says. "I was just warm all over and really, really high. My head was hot, and my ears were burning. It was like smoking chronic. I was like, 'Holy shit, this stuff really works!'"
Twelve months and several pounds of spice later, Jones is pretty sure the stuff isn't safe. It gets him high, but he says it also gives him headaches, stiff muscles, and on two occasions, temporary loss of vision. Once, he smoked such a high dose of synthetic cannabinoids that he found himself crawling around on all fours and vomiting.
Despite the pattern of ill side effects, Jones continues to smoke anywhere from an eighth- to a quarter-ounce of spice every day. It has replaced marijuana as his drug of choice because it's still legal in Arizona and it won't show up on a test for pot. But he also thinks he may be addicted to it.
"My tolerance to this stuff has become unbelievable," Jones says. "With weed, I can take one or two hits, and I'll always reach a point where I'm like, 'I'm good.' And I'll put the pipe down. With spice, I'll smoke it all day long, bowl after bowl. I have to smoke more and more to get the same high."
Spice could be a big problem for people like Anthony Jones. In addition to the health risks, there's always the possibility that Arizona will eventually follow other states and ban its sale and use. Urine tests to detect synthetic cannabinoids are beginning to hit the market, while reports of people freaking out and being hospitalized after smoking spice are showing up in the news. Even the chemist who invented many of the synthetic cannabinoids used in spice says smoking them is "stupid."
Even so, "herbal incense blends" are flying off shelves at head shops everywhere and through the mail from numerous Web sites. It's becoming a multimillion-dollar industry worldwide, even as several countries and states outlaw spice.
Herbal incense/spice products are an amalgamation of dried herbs like damiana, mugwort, and catnip, sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids that get smokers high. There are countless so-called herbal incense blends on the market, including Spice, K2, Pep, Puff, Black Mamba, Voodoo, Starry Night, and Ninja. The blends usually cost anywhere from $10 to $30 a gram and are often packaged in shiny foil baggies or in clear, hard plastic containers.
Most head shops in Phoenix carry various spice blends. Of the 10 Valley head shops New Times contacted, only one — Hippie Gypsy in Tempe — said it didn't carry any kind of "herbal incense" or spice.
Packets of herbal incense contain the warning that the contents are "not for human consumption," but it is common knowledge that people are smoking them to get high while retailers get around the law by selling it "strictly as incense" and refusing to discuss the products' supposed psychoactive effects.
As someone who both smokes and sells herbal incense, Jones is frustrated that he can't speak openly with potential spice buyers.
"I wish that I could be honest with customers and tell them about the real pros and cons of smoking spice," he says. "But I can't even acknowledge that spice is sold for anything other than aromatherapy, or we could run into legal problems."
As people navigate the uncharted waters of spice as a "legal alternative" to pot, its popularity has led to an explosion of other new designer drugs, all widely available via the Internet and mail order to anyone with a credit card — for "research purposes only."
Anthony Jones is familiar with many of the new substances on the market and drugs, in general. He's a longtime marijuana smoker, which is one reason he didn't want to be identified in this story. (Anthony Jones is not his real name.) Even disclosing that he uses a largely unregulated drug like spice makes him uncomfortable. "It's not the legality of smoking spice, because it's perfectly legal for me to do it [in Arizona]," Jones says. "It's the stigma of being someone who takes drugs to get high that I don't want."
Three other regular spice smokers with whom New Times talked also refused to use their real names in this story. One 30-year-old male says he started smoking spice two months ago, when he stopped smoking marijuana before a drug test. "I'm addicted to the Blueberry Voodoo Spice," he says. "I smoke a bowl every night. But I know it's just a matter of time before they make it illegal."
Another Phoenix resident, a young woman, says she started smoking spice because of the reputed high. Initially, she was amazed at the effectiveness of spice, but after smoking it "a few times a week" for the past few months, she's considering stopping spice and going back to using marijuana again. "I liked the high in the beginning. It was like a pot high," she says. "But I think it [spice] has been giving me headaches lately. I cough a lot more, too. And this stuff is so expensive compared to pot that I'll probably just switch back."
One 19-year-old guy is currently job-hunting, and started smoking spice to ensure he'd pass any pre-employment screenings for marijuana. That was six months ago. Now, he says, "I just smoke spice to get stupid. I'll get totally blown and play video games or watch TV all day."
Anthony Jones' spice use is heavier than most others, but he doesn't consider himself a "stereotypical stoner." He's a 30-something Midwestern transplant who's happily married with children and works more than 50 hours a week. He makes a good living. He considers his drug use a combination of recreation and experimentation and sympathizes with such figures as the late Timothy Leary, the Harvard professor who was an LSD advocate, and biochemist Dr. Alexander Shulgin, who was licensed by the DEA to research illegal chemicals until 1994, shortly after publishing a book detailing his own experimentation with various synthetic drugs.
"To me, [drug use] is about exploration and a change in consciousness," Jones says. "So little is really known about the human brain — who knows what untapped potential is there? Of course, the police aren't going to understand that point of view if I get pulled over with weed — and it wouldn't matter if they did, because marijuana is illegal."
"But this stuff," Jones says, holding a clear plastic tube of spice in his palm, "this stuff gets me higher than weed, and if I get pulled over with it right now, there's nothing illegal on me. And the synthetic cannabinoids in here are just two of hundreds of compounds that will get you high."
Of those hundreds of compounds, only one is currently a Schedule I controlled substance in the U.S. It's a synthetic cannabinoid called HU-210, developed by Professor Raphael Mechoulam at the Hebrew University in 1988 — the same year a team at the St. Louis University Medical School identified a cannabinoid receptor in a rat brain.
The discovery of cannabinoid receptors — parts of the brain that bond with the THC in marijuana — in mammal brains was regarded as a breakthrough, and researchers scrambled to try and understand why they were there and how they worked. Among the many academics that began further research was Dr. John W. Huffman, organic chemistry professor at Clemson University. Many of the synthetic cannabinoid compounds in "herbal incense" bear his initials.
Dr. John W. Huffman has been a professor of organic chemistry at Clemson University in South Carolina for 50 years. He has an impressive résumé that includes a Ph.D. from Harvard and the National Institutes of Health's Senior Scientist Award.
Fifteen years ago, while doing research funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Huffman's team developed a series of chemical compounds that would essentially mimic some of the effects of marijuana. The purpose of the research was to study how cannabinoids affected biological activity.
In December 2008, Huffman learned from an article in the German newspaper Der Spiegel that some of the compounds he'd developed years earlier were being sold in herbal mixtures called "spice," which people were smoking to get high.
One of Huffman's most widely used compounds is JWH-018, developed in his research laboratory in the summer of 1995. Huffman says the compound was just one of 450 his research team created.
The chemical formula for JWH-018 was first published in the academic Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics in 1998. Ten years later, German pharmaceutical company THC Pharm found JWH-018 in three versions of the herbal incense brand Spice.
Somebody had latched onto Huffman's synthetic cannabinoid formulas and began manufacturing them. By the summer of 2009, packets of dried herbs sprayed with JWH compounds were being produced and sold throughout the world as "herbal incense" products.
Huffman, 78, isn't surprised the "synthetic marijuana" trend hit but is surprised that it took so long. "The materials to make JWH-018 are available from laboratory chemical suppliers," he says. "A good college senior chemistry major could probably make them with some supervision and decent lab equipment. JWH-018 was made by a summer undergraduate research student, with supervision."
As is generally the case when a new drug hits the streets, misinformation about synthetic cannabinoids runs rampant, particularly in Internet forums. There have been rumors that JWH compounds can be made from household chemicals. Huffman refutes this. "These compounds cannot be made using household chemicals and your kitchen stove," he says. "They are not like meth in that respect."
Another myth being perpetuated is that rats used in Dr. Huffman's experiments with JWH died during research. Huffman says that rats were not even used in the research — mice were, and though they were euthanized after the lab tests, none of them died during testing. Huffman's tests observed the same effects of JWH compounds in mice that later DEA tests did — stiff muscles, decreases in overall activity, a lowered body temperature, and pain relief.
Those are the four effects deemed by DEA scientists as signs of "THC-like activity" in animals.
Though many people are hailing and using Huffman's compounds as a revolutionary new drug, he's been warning people not to. When media reports about spice surfaced around nine months ago, Huffman called law enforcement and drug abuse agencies to advise them of his compounds.
Huffman said that though there have been decades of research into the medicinal benefits of marijuana, very little research has been done on synthetic cannabinoids. He says he's "concerned that it could hurt people," and says cannabinoid receptors may have a role in the development of some kinds of cancer, liver disease, and osteoporosis.
"There are no valid, peer-reviewed studies of the effects of this compound in humans, nor are there any data regarding its toxicity," says Dr. Huffman, who likens smoking JWH compounds to "playing Russian Roulette."
"I emphasize that this compound was not designed to be a super-THC," Huffman says. "It should absolutely not be used as a recreational drug."
Synthetic cannabinoids are just some of the latest substances in a long history of designer drugs.
After morphine and heroin were made illegal in 1925 by the second International Opium Convention, several legal alternatives, with virtually identical effects, were promptly marketed and sold.
In the '60s, synthetic hallucinogen LSD grew widely popular, and remained so even after its criminalization in 1968. Several alternatives to LSD were introduced throughout the '70s, but the next big designer drug — and one that set a legal precedent that could affect synthetic marijuana in the United States — was MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy.
MDMA was developed in 1912 by Merck chemist Anton Köllish and championed throughout the '70s and '80s by chemistry professor Alexander Shulgin and psychotherapist Leo Zeff. It also became popular as a euphoric at nightclubs worldwide and was unregulated in the U.S. until 1985, when the DEA used emergency scheduling power for the first time to ban MDMA.
Emergency scheduling gives the government the power to ban chemicals for up to 18 months while gathering evidence for a permanent scheduling. MDMA was permanently scheduled in 1988.
Since 1985, a variety of other drugs have been emergency-scheduled. Any number of synthetic cannabinoid compounds could be next. Even if they are, there's potentially more dangerous stuff on the horizon, as designer drugs become widely available as "research chemicals."
Google the term "research chemicals" right now and, guaranteed, the first page of search results will include links to no less than a dozen sites selling chemical compounds "for research purposes only."
These chemicals are actually some of the newer, more potent designer drugs on the market. For every illegal drug, there's an unregulated "research chemical" that reputedly does the same thing. In addition to synthetic cannabinoid powders, research chemical sites also sell substances like MDAI, said to have similar effects to ecstasy, and mephedrone, a synthetic cousin of crystal meth.
In 1995, High Times' Jon Gettman wrote, "The next century will view the 1988 discovery of the THC receptor site in the brain as the pivotal event which led to the legalization of marijuana."
But 15 years after Gettman's prediction, what that discovery really led to is the explosion of a new designer drug market in the face of marijuana's continued criminalization.
There are nearly 500 synthetic cannabinoid compounds already in existence, and hundreds of new potential formulas that haven't been developed yet. When one compound is made illegal, another quickly takes its place.
The swift popularity of synthetic cannabinoids has left many lawmakers scrambling to ban something they don't yet understand. Many of the bans, like those in Austria, Romania, and Switzerland, began with the outlawing of the "Spice" or "K2" herbal incense brands in particular, but laws in many places have recently grown to include specific synthetic cannabinoid compounds.
As of press time, 14 countries have banned the JWH-018 compound. The compound has also been banned in 11 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, and Tennessee, with similar legislation proposed in four more states. Several states, including Kansas and Missouri, have also banned other synthetic cannabinoids, but enterprising chemists continue creating new compounds to get around the law.
Only one synthetic cannabinoid compound is currently federally controlled. The DEA lists four others as "drugs and chemicals of concern."
The process for federal scheduling of drugs under the Controlled Substances Act is a long, laborious one. The U.S. attorney general must consider eight factors when evaluating a drug, including its potential for and pattern of abuse, scientific evidence (if known) of the drug's effects, and whether the substance is chemically similar to a substance already controlled under the CSA.
Once that's determined, the attorney general must then request a scientific and medical evaluation of the drug from the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and submit a recommendation to add the drug to a particular schedule class. There are Schedules I through V, with I being the most strictly controlled — for drugs deemed to have high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.
The secretary then does his or her own evaluation of the drug, using the same eight factors the AG did, before scheduling a substance.
Some say there are just too many synthetic cannabinoid compounds out there for the federal government to systemically test and ban every single one. So states are enacting their own bans, as did the U.S. military. In May, the Department of Defense banned synthetic cannabinoids from all U.S. military bases, after concerns about soldiers smoking spice to get around tests for marijuana were raised.
Athletes who smoke spice because it doesn't show up as marijuana in urine tests may be discouraged to know that a test that detects metabolites from certain synthetic marijuana compounds hit the market in June. The test, developed by California-based Redwood Toxicology Laboratories, is said to detect metabolites from JWH-018 and JWH-073 up to 72 hours after they're ingested, depending on the dosage.
Another drug-testing company, Drug Free Sport, which handles testing for the NFL and NCAA, announced in May that it is developing a test for JWH metabolites that could be available by year's end.
The effectiveness of these tests in detecting spice use remains to be seen; there are so many variations of synthetic cannabinoid formulas out there that tests for specific compounds could be futile.
"You haven't seen anything yet," Anthony Jones says. "The war on drugs is just beginning, and the drugs are going to win this one."
The materials needed to make JWH compounds are easily accessible to researchers, and as DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno pointed out, "there are a lot of gifted chemists out there."
So it's hardly surprising that there's now an emergence of JWH compounds, particularly 018, in so-called pure powder form. It's widely available via mail order on the web, on a proliferation of sites with names like jwh018supplier.com, buy-jwh.com, discountjwh.com, Jwh4less.com, and buyjwhusa.com. The powder is sold in various amounts, from single grams (which cost around $45 each) to 1,000 grams (around $11,000 with a bulk discount).
Many of the "research chemical" sites selling JWH powder don't list company information. They don't tell you what state they're in, who founded the company and when, the names of the scientists who create their compounds, or any description of the compounds themselves. They simply guarantee "quality product" with a "fast delivery" on every purchase.
There's a company based in Phoenix called jwh-018buyonline.com, which sells powder for $50 a gram. It's owned by a guy named Jason Tasker, who stopped returning calls after New Times questioned his business partner, Jake Roberts, about where the company gets its "99.8 percent pure" JWH-018 powder. Roberts wouldn't say, going only so far as to say their product comes from a "licensed research facility in California."
In e-mails, Tasker says his company's been around for two years and that he wants to help "educate people and dispel some of the myths of JWH-018." He and Roberts claim they have many satisfied customers but wouldn't put New Times in touch with any. Instead, Tasker sent a list of links to Wikipedia entries on JWH compounds and a post at the grasscity.com forums, where a user wrote about how smoking JWH seemed to help ease his complications from AIDS.
Jake Roberts told New Times he thought a lot of his company's "clients" probably bought powder to create their own herbal smoking blends. Anthony Jones says he's afraid that people are freebasing it. "I won't do that, and I think anybody who is doing that is insane," he says. "There's got to be potential for overdose like that."
Anthony Jones already knows what a dangerously potent dose of synthetic cannabinoids feels like.
While vacationing in California, he stopped at a head shop to buy spice. The clerk said an herbal incense blend called Spike XXX was the strongest he had, so Jones bought a couple of grams and quickly smoked through them.
Half an hour later, he found himself crawling across the ground on all fours, head throbbing and reeling, vomiting and feeling like he was going to die. "I've smoked hundreds of different spice blends, and that Spike left me totally blown," Jones says. "I don't even like to talk about Spike. Waaay too strong, even for me, and I've smoked a shit-ton of spice. I'd never gotten sick like that on spice before or since."
There has never been a documented case of a marijuana overdose, but Jones says, "I do believe it's possible I overdosed the synthetics."
The potency of synthetic cannabinoids, compared with the naturally occurring THC in marijuana, can be astounding, and because most herbal incense blends are sprayed unevenly with JWH powder, dosages can vary greatly.
Animal tests conducted last year by the DEA concluded that one synthetic cannabinoid compound was 66 times more potent than THC in rats, and 80 times more potent than THC in pigeons. Lab tests conducted by medical doctor and pharmacist Christian Steup at Germany-based research company THC Pharm concluded that another compound is "four to five times more potent than tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly known as THC."
"When I smoke weed instead of spice, it's just not the same," Jones says. "Weed will never be the same again — and I only smoke really good weed. I think I've overloaded my cannabinoid receptors with spice, and now when I smoke weed, they're just like, 'What the hell is this?'"
"My tolerance started to build within days of my first use," Jones adds. "Days. That's scary."
Perhaps equally scary are the horror stories being reported about people suffering seizures, suicidal feelings, chest pains, hallucinations, and severe anxiety attacks after smoking herbal incense blends (identified most often in reports as K2 or Spice). The American Association of Poison Control Centers reports more than 866 calls related to K2 so far this year, an increase from 13 calls in 2009.
While medical personnel are still learning about the effects of these new compounds, almost all agree the symptoms they're seeing from spice are not the same symptoms associated with marijuana. Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center managing director Keith Boesen described some spice patient symptoms as agitation, hallucinations, seizures, vomiting and nausea, and severe difficulty breathing — symptoms not often reported with smoking pot.
Dr. Anthony Scalzo, a professor of emergency medicine at St. Louis University, told the New York Times that he didn't know if people under the influence of K2 were reaching for doughnuts after smoking, but the cases he's seeing are "very anxious, agitated people that are requiring several doses of sedatives."
There have been numerous cases — including at least two in Arizona — in which people were hospitalized after smoking synthetic cannabinoids.
In May, four high school students in Surprise who'd smoked spice called 911, complaining of nausea and feelings of impending death. Surprise Police Department Lieutenant Penny Riherd told local media that one student had been found on one of the high school's tennis courts, "in the fetal position sucking his thumb."
On July 6 in Prescott, two men and a teenage boy were taken to the Yavapai Regional Medical Center West Campus after smoking Spice. The teen had reportedly "freaked out" and was "combative" with medical personnel; one of the men was reportedly talking about seeing Jesus and demons.
The anonymous smokers New Times interviewed report mixed reactions — from no effects to a lack of motivation to migraines.
Anthony Jones says he hasn't experienced freak-outs or seizures, but as a daily smoker of synthetic marijuana for the past year, he describes the cumulative effects on his body as "disturbing."
"I've had headaches, and I feel it in my muscles all the time," he says. "My body is just always stiff and achy. I don't like it."
But the scariest experiences for Jones happened when he was driving, and experienced a temporary loss of vision. "All my other faculties were still working — I could hear, and smell, and feel things. I was totally conscious, but my vision went totally black," Jones recalls. "It was like somebody put a blinder over my eyes for about four or five seconds."
Jones said that's happened twice in the past few months.
"It was scary," Jones says, taking a hit of spice off his pipe. Then, through a cloud of white smoke, he says, "I'm fairly convinced this stuff is poison."