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Texas and the Feds Fight Fake Pot

Synthetic marijuana may be difficult to outlaw.
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When I was working on a feature on Barry Cooper, the former narcotics officer turned marijuana advocate, he told me he had come across a substance that, when smoked, produced a high as good as the best pot– only this stuff was legal and wouldn’t show up on a drug test. Cooper, a gifted entrepreneur as well as activist, smoked the substance to avoid failing drug tests and now sells the “herbal incense” on his website, he calls it Lucy Jane.

Barry Cooper wasn’t the only person to discover synthetic pot, which is sold across Texas at head shops under a variety of names, including K2, Spice and Blaze. Now State Senator Florence Shapiro and the federal government are in a race to outlaw the substance, which may prove more difficult than banning the real stuff.

The ingredient in fake pot is usually JWH-018, a synthetic cannabinoid created by Dr. John Huffman at Clemson University. In the 1980s, Huffman began developing drugs that target the endocannabinoid receptors in the brain—the specific receptors that are affected by THC in marijuana and other naturally occurring cannabinoids—in order to develop drugs that might help MS, AIDS and chemotherapy patients. Huffman, whose research was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, created dozens of synthetic cannabinoids, many of which could be manufactured by easily available chemical compounds and a basic understanding of chemistry. (Huffman’s compounds, all starting with JWH, are named after the creator’s initials. Another compound bares the initials CP, for Charles Pfizer—the pharmaceutical company was also researching synthetic cannabiniods in the 1970s.) The synthetic compounds have a structure similar to THC, the main active ingredient in marijuana, but, unlike the natural herb, has not been covered by drug laws, so it’s not surprising that a few years ago entrepreneurs started spraying the synthetic compound on potpourri and selling it in Europe under the name Spice.

But the fallout from fake pot is once again showing that you can’t improve on Mother Nature (as if Frankenstein and artificial grape flavoring didn’t provide enough proof.) Marijuana has been smoked for thousands of years, while JWH-018 and it’s relatives have never been tested at all and it’s unclear what dosage you get from a package of fake pot. Huffman himself has told the Phoenix New Times that he is concerned the compound “could hurt people” and says smoking it is “playing Russian Roulette.” What is clear is that anecdotal evidence reveals that Spice and its relatives come with annoying side effects, like a hangover accompanied by headaches and stiff muscles. And since these substances are not regulated for potency, there have been a rash of Spice smokers ending up in emergency rooms suffering from agitation, seizures, vomiting and hallucinations. In other words, we’ve created an ironic situation where a legal alternative being potentially more dangerous than the real thing.

In November, the DEA announced that it planned to use emergency powers to ban five synthetic cannabinoids for a year, including JWH-018, while the agency studies whether to make it permanent. The ban could go into effect any day. But the DEA’s action has not stopped Texas Senator Florence Shapiro from working on a bill that will make the substances illegal in Texas as well. “The DEA action has not changed my plans,” says Senator Shapiro. “They are only outlawing the five most common chemicals. But these rogue chemists can just find new compounds to use.” Shapiro says she is working with a task force to create a bill that will be difficult for Spice manufacturers to get around — one that will ban at least 7 compounds.

But both the state and the federal government is ultimately in the same bind — it must specify exactly what chemicals it is banning—so it’s likely that this is the beginning of a cat-and-mouse game between the agencies and the chemists. Huffman himself created at least 450 synthetic cannabinoids, which leaves 455 that could still be used after the DEA’s ban takes place. And there are more compounds being created all the time. Online companies traffic in dozens of drugs that have yet to be classified, which are sold as “research chemicals,” and there’s even a legal fake cocaine containing the drug MDPV being marketed under the name “Ivory Wave” or “Vanilla Ice” and sold as a bath salt.

Senator Shapiro says her bill, which is yet to be filed, has 6 co-sponsors in the Senate and 8 representatives are interested in filing a similar bill in the house. It’s likely to pass, and you can kiss Lucy Jane goodbye. That is, until a chemist starts spraying some other untested chemical on marjoram and calls it Lily Jane. The reality is, it might take legalizing the real stuff to really keep potentially dangerous copycat drugs off the market.

Michael May is a former Observer managing editor. He’s now a freelance journalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.