Legally stoned: Synthetic pot hits Wisconsin; regulators already on it
Ben Masel strolls down a downtown street on a cool spring day, takes a hit on a joint, holds it in, then puffs out an aromatic cloud.
“I’m certainly feeling something,” he says.
Masel, a longtime marijuana legalization advocate who has provided expert testimony in court on marijuana issues, is aware that he could be approached at any time by a cop. But he’s not worried. He’s not breaking any laws.
The joint Masel is smoking is filled with Flash-II, a product marketed as herbal incense that was purchased for $25 a gram at Sunshine Daydream on State Street. It contains no THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Instead it contains a synthetic compound that mimics the effects of THC. And for now, at least, it’s perfectly legal.
Masel, who admits to being more than a little familiar with the effects of the illegal herb, says his early afternoon joint is more of a scientific experiment than a recreational high. Before partaking, he abstained from similar intoxicants for 30 hours just to make sure he had “zero baseline.”
After a few minutes the buzz settles in.
“It’s not bad,” he says. “It doesn’t match up with some strains I actually like, but after a third of a joint it’s definitely close to a cannabis high.”
The herbal mix that Masel is smoking is sprayed with the chemical compound JWH-018, a synthetic cannabinoid — a drug that produces an effect on the brain similar to THC — or some variation on it. But you won’t find that on the list of ingredients, which commonly includes damiana, an herb often included in herbal cigarettes and said to have medicinal qualities, and other herbs and spices.
The “incense” came from Sunshine Daydream, but other brands are available down the street at Knuckleheads smoke shop or at Amsterdam, a shop on Gilman Street, and its sister store on Williamson Street. All three businesses just began selling the products in the past two months. You won’t find them with the other incense. They are either behind glass or behind the counter, safely out of shoplifting range.
Each packet is clearly labeled “Not for human consumption.”
Some also warn users not to drive or operate heavy machinery.
Often called K2 or Spice, two brands that have gotten considerable publicity, synthetic pot has been in the U.S. for at least a couple of years, and lawmakers in other states are busy putting bans in place. But while it’s gained a foothold in some Midwestern states, for some reason it’s been slow getting to Wisconsin. Several head shops in the state reported getting it in stock just days, and in one case only hours, before getting a call from a reporter.
“K2 has seen increased use in many Midwestern states with Wisconsin, thankfully, lagging in this uptick in use and availability reported by other states,” says Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen in an e-mail response to questions from The Capital Times. “Like other dangerous illegal drugs, including heroin, its use has the attention of law enforcement in Wisconsin, and we continue to monitor this trend.”
But the synthetic marijuana genie is out of the bottle, selling briskly in head shops and generating a vast Internet market where smokeable herbs laced with the stuff are easily obtained. And a pure form of the drug, which users ingest in a variety of ways, including dissolving in alcoholic beverages, can be purchased in powder form in multiple-gram, discretely packaged bags.
While local store owners are mum about their “legal weed,” employees at all the shops say they’re selling a lot of it, despite the fact that it’s going for a hefty $25 or so per gram, or about $50 to $65 for a three-gram packet — more than the going rate for pot. What you get in return is a legal high that doesn’t show up on standard drug tests, and freedom from the ebbs and flows of a sporadic marijuana market.
And if it’s true, as some claim, that marijuana, despite its outlaw status, is the nation’s biggest cash crop, it’s not surprising that a legal version would find a thriving market.
“Somebody who’s buying incense I don’t think would be spending $50 to $80 on a 3- to 5-gram bag of incense,” says Will Taylor, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency field office in Chicago. “So there’s a lot of profit to be made on it.”
While none of the local shop owners would talk on the record, one complains that media coverage of the phenomenon will generate the same kind of reaction that led to the state ban on the hallucinogenic herb Salvia divinorum, which was signed into law in March.
Kansas has banned synthetic THC-like products outright, and several other states, including Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Dakota, Tennessee and Utah, are getting ready to follow suit. It’s also been banned in the military.
But aides to legislative leaders like Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, D-Weston, and Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan, D-Janesville, haven’t even heard of the drug. Neither have many local school officials and juvenile court officials. The Dane County Drug and Gang Task Force notified local law enforcement agencies in March of the debut of the substance on the local market. None so far have reported any problems, with the possible exception of a drug-laced cookie eaten by two Verona Middle School students last week. Authorities aren’t sure whether the cookie contained synthetic marijuana or the real thing.
Connie Bettin, a drug abuse prevention specialist with the Dane County Youth Commission, heard about synthetic marijuana only days before being called by a reporter. She immediately sent out an alert on a youth resource network Listserv, which includes school officials, drug counselors, youth counselors and public health officials.
“It’s hit the community so quickly that parents aren’t going to be aware it’s out there,” she says.
Local shops say their customers must produce an ID proving they’re 18 before they can purchase synthetic pot. These are the same restrictions that apply to cigarettes. So far, store owners and employees say, underage buyers haven’t posed a problem.
“It’s mostly younger people, probably 18 to 25,” says Tina Hyler, an employee at Sartori Imports in Oshkosh, which began selling several brands of incense laced with the marijuana-like drugs on April 30. “Most are like people that have good jobs and they don’t want to fail a drug test.”
News accounts in other states have reported that the products are also popular with professionals, military personnel and parolees.
Synthetic pot goes by various names. Pep Pourri, Black Mamba, Kind Spice, Life Spice and Flash-II are available locally. K2, likely the most notorious brand, was shunned by some sellers and distributors after federal and local officials in Kansas confiscated a bunch of it when they raided a head shop and a distributor early this year. But brands like Space, Gold Spice, Dragon Spice, Voodoo Spice, Hush, Summit and others are gaining in popularity. And as word gets around, local store employees say business is picking up.
“People are coming back,” says one. “They seem to like it.”
In the mid-1990s, Clemson University researcher John W. Huffman was studying the chemical structure of cannabinoids and their effects on the brain when he and his students came up with synthetic compounds that affect the same brain receptors as THC. The compounds differ from real THC in that they are more targeted to the receptors that are affected by cannabinoids.
While Huffman says he has become too inundated with media inquiries to respond to them all individually — he has taken to responding with a prepared e-mail — he told the Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier last year that he spelled out the chemical formula for one drug, JWH-018 (named with Huffman’s initials) in an article for a scientific journal in the mid-2000s.
Soon an herbal product laced with a version of the drug, known as Spice, surfaced in Europe and by 2007 was selling like hotcakes. While many European countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Poland, Russia and France, have since banned or restricted the drug, it is not currently regulated by the U.S. government.
Over time, numerous JWH variants and other synthetic cannabinoids have emerged, having similar effects.
Huffman, in his e-mail, stresses that the products were never meant for human consumption: “Their effects on humans have not been studied and they could very well have toxic effects. They absolutely should not be used as recreational drugs.”
Only one of the synthetic compounds on the market, HU-210, which is far stronger than JWH compounds, is a controlled substance in the U.S.
“We do have jurisdiction over that,” says Taylor, the DEA spokesman. “But most of the companies now are using other types of synthetic cannabinoids.”
Like everyone else, the DEA was caught by surprise by the new drugs. While the agency is looking into getting the synthetic drugs scheduled as controlled substances, “it takes well over a year to get something controlled through the DEA scheduling authority,” Taylor says.
“It’s definitely on the DEA’s radar,” he adds. “It’s considered what we call a drug of concern.”
The only other way to get the drug federally banned, Taylor says, is by law, but so far Congress has not made any moves in that direction.
Taylor points out the products are an unknown quantity. There have been no studies on their long-term health effects, and there have been several reports of people heading to hospitals with accelerated heart rates or anxiety attacks.
In addition, the list of ingredients never mentions the synthetic drugs, and there’s no way to know how strong they are. While some brands are reported to produce a mellow buzz, others are said to be several times more potent that pot.
But until the federal government takes action — and many expect that it eventually will — it’s up to the states. And while the states mull over their various legislative options, it’s party time.
According to Wisconsin shop owners and employees that deal in incense products, customers have been clamoring for the products, and distributors have been pushing them hard.
In Las Vegas last year at the C.H.A.M.P.S. trade show, a forum for smoke product sellers, about a quarter of the vendors were hawking synthetic marijuana products, according to one local shop owner who attended the event, but didn’t want to be named.
Even if your local head shop doesn’t carry them, a seemingly infinite number of products is available on the Internet. You can even go to websites like JWH018supplier.com and buy a 1-gram pack of white powder advertised as 99.7 percent pure for $45, three grams for $90, or even 125 grams for $750.
Internet message boards are full of pointers. You can eat it, but it takes a long time to enter your system. Users say it’s better to dissolve it in booze.
Apparently it doesn’t bake well. According to one brownie baker on Zoklet.net, “The brownies came out, but they kinda aren’t nearly as potent as they should be. I’ve taken 5 mg of JWH-018 (half of 0.01g) in a shot of vodka and I was f------ baked out of my mind. These brownies kinda make you feel like you took a few tokes of some middies.”
Other online forum offerings are anonymous postings by criminal offenders who laud Spice-like brands for allowing them to get high and still pass a urine test. Those claiming to be military service members also sing its praises.
But just try to find out where the stuff is coming from. Most people agree that most of it originates from Asian labs. It’s picked up by various distributors and then shipped.
The packages sold in head shops don’t identify where they are produced. The people at JWH018supplier.com, who claim on their website to be based on the West Coast, didn’t answer phone and e-mail inquiries.
But it’s clear that synthetic THC-like compounds are being produced in vast quantities, then are being moved by companies that specialize in buying and selling all manner of things.
Kaikai Technology Co. in Jiangsu, China, advertises products like polyurethane screens, spray foam insulation, JWH-018 and JWH-073. At Trade King International, based in Cameroon, you can buy products that include chicken feet, garlic, the synthetic THC-like compounds JWH-015, JWH-200 and HU-308, and herbal Spice products.
While officials ponder what to do about synthetic marijuana, the products are quickly becoming entrenched in the market as potheads subject to workplace drug testing discover they can get stoned with impunity. Drug testing companies are developing tests for some compounds, but manufacturers have been busily churning out variants, which make them difficult to detect.
“The trouble is you just alter the structure slightly and then you have a drug that’s not illegal but does the same thing,” says UW Hospital toxicologist Alan Mottram. “So you’re kind of chasing your tail with it. If they’re going to legislate to ban something like that they really need to ban the class, not just the specific molecules.”
None of Madison’s three hospitals has treated anyone for problems stemming from synthetic marijuana use.
David Gummin, medical director with the Wisconsin Poison Center, says his facility has received about a half-dozen calls since February from users who have had adverse reactions or from the emergency rooms or clinics caring for them.
Most of the people using it apparently don’t have problems, but he says “those who do seem to have the same kinds of effects as people who smoke a little too much pot or use too much hash.”
These include increased heart rates, palpitations, chest discomfort, sweats, nausea and shortness of breath.
“Nobody’s died that we’re aware of, even nationally,” he says.
Mottram says it’s difficult to gauge whether comparable numbers of people seek medical help from smoking too much marijuana because physicians have a “comfort level” with pot and don’t feel the need to report it.
“Most of the time people are going to be just chilled out and sedated,” he says of distressed pot smokers.
And while so far, anecdotally at least, real pot and fake pot appear to be comparable in their effects, ingesting the new, synthetic pot carries a risk, Mottram says, especially in light of the fact that it’s completely unregulated and no one knows exactly what is in the herbal products they’re buying, and there’s no way to tell how much THC-like substances they contain.
“This is a physiologically, psychologically active substance that we have no way of regulating or understanding what it is,” he says. “People are buying an herbal product and actually the most active substance is a synthetic substance.”
But as long as it’s legal and undetectable, there will likely be a market for it — unless, of course, you don’t have to worry about drug testing and have access to the real thing, which is cheaper, safer, and, some say, more enjoyable.
“It’s a little different, but it’s nice enough,” says Masel of his synthetic marijuana buzz. “But not something I want to do regularly.”
By: Steven Elbow
May 19, 2010
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