Over the past couple of months, newspapers and TV stations across the United States have been running with horror stories about K2, spice, and others kinds of “synthetic marijuana.” A recent article in the New York Times, for example, described a few blocks in East Harlem where “joints” were selling for a dollar, users were either passing out or twitching uncontrollably, and cops and ambulances idled, waiting to pick up casualties for the emergency room.
The Times story sounded like a dispatch from a hellscape—nothing like a typical stoner scene such as Seattle’s Hempfest, where thousands of people gather each year to smoke marijuana, eat snacks, and chat about topics of mutual interest. Why do the effects of “synthetic marijuana” sound so radically different from those of actual marijuana?
“Because the phrases ‘synthetic pot’ and ‘synthetic marijuana’ are huge misnomers,” says Dr. Jahan Marcu, who researched cannabinoids for his PhD work at Temple University and is now the senior scientist at the nonprofit Americans for Safe Access.
Naturally occurring cannabis, he explains, contains dozens of molecular compounds that interact with each other and the human brain in ways we don’t fully understand yet—thanks, in part, to federal drug-prohibition laws that set up barriers for scientists who want to research such chemicals.
But in place of the complex but time-tested chemical kaleidoscope of real cannabis, “synthetic marijuana” tends to be one or two cannabinoid-like chemicals that have been sprayed onto leaves—usually damiana, marshmallow, or mullein—and then smoked. The results are unpredictable. “Who knows what they actually do?” Marcu says. “That is really, really different from cannabis or THC.”
Marcu describes those synthetic cannabinoids—the kinds he was working with for his thesis project—as “wrenches and hammers for research, not for human consumption. It’s a completely different pharmacological profile with totally different activity in the brain.”
But people take those compounds because they’re cheap, they’re intoxicating, and they don’t show up on drug tests.
Dr. Sunil Kumar Aggarwal, a colleague of Marcu’s, says the “synthetic pot” trend originated in Europe and first appeared in the United States on military bases. “There were military psychiatrists giving poster presentations at national meetings about psych-ward admissions,” he says. “People were using spice or K2 and having psychotic breaks. I don’t know how much of that is the drug itself and how much of that had to do with adulteration.”
Even naturally occurring cannabinoids, Aggarwal says, result in paradoxical effects—they can stimulate or depress appetite, dull or exacerbate pain, make seizures more or less likely. “Cannabinoids,” he says, “still need a lot of research.” And the synthetic ones, made by basement chemists, are even more of a question mark.
But both Marcu and Aggarwal agree that anti-cannabis laws, and the resulting lack of research and understanding about how cannabinoids work, are the root cause of the problem. During his graduate-school days, Marcu struggled to get federal permission to work with cannabinoid-like chemicals that he says he could’ve bought at the gas station down the street. “There’s JWH-018, XLR, stuff that’s so fringy that people are taking,” he says. “They’re completely different from cannabis.”
A few years ago, Marcu saw a billboard in New York claiming that synthetic marijuana and actual marijuana were equally dangerous. He chuckles ruefully and says: “I can’t think of any message that’s further from the truth.”