This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
"It's not marijuana but it's similar to, it's similar to incense. And she seems to be having convulsions of some sort." –__Demi Moore's friend in a recorded 911 call as the actress was having a fit in the next room after smoking synthetic cannabis in 2011.
On Wednesday, five students from Lancaster University were rushed to hospital in a critical condition after taking Spice, a brand of synthetic cannabis. At the time of writing, three had been discharged while two remained there, conscious and stable.
It's not the first time people have been poleaxed by this drug. In the US, hundreds of hospitalizations and even some deaths have been linked to it. The pattern has been repeated in the UK, in New Zealand, and the world over. Which begs two questions:
What Is This Shit and Why Are People Smoking It?
It says something that the guy who inadvertently invented synthetic cannabis has said it's not fit for human consumption. In 2006, an organic chemist called John Huffmann and his colleagues at Clemson University in South Carolina published their research, into new ways of developing anti-inflammatory drugs, which happened to involve the creation of hundreds of synthetic cannabis compounds, including one called JWH-018.
Two years later in 2008, at the same time as mephedrone was beginning to surface on internet drug forums, so was a mysterious cannabis-like drug called Spice. Compared to the usual inert legal highs marketed as cannabis alternatives, this actually got people stoned. It arrived on the scene at a time when cannabis users were complaining about "grit weed," ganja that had been sprayed with tiny silicone beads by major suppliers in Europe to artificially bulk up their product, but which damaged smokers' throats and lungs.
When scientists tested Spice, they found it had no connection to the cannabis plant, but instead contained JWH-018. Huffman's compound acts like the real thing, unlocking the brain's cannabinoid receptors, to give the sensation of being stoned.
As with mephedrone, Spice was not advertised as a psychoactive drug (it was marketed as incense or bonsai fertilizer), but nevertheless became an online hit because it was cheap, as easy to order over the internet as a pair of socks, and was totally legal.
JWH-018 was banned in the UK in 2010 and in many US states in 2011. But then the chemists started making Spice with other synthetic compounds (of which there are over 400) that were legal, and the Spice continued to flow.
It's testimony to our globalized world that, right now, a teenage car thief is probably flat out in his Feltham YOI cell getting high on a chemical concoction made in a lab in the back street of Shanghai.
How Is This Stuff Made?
Most synthetic cannabis originates in laboratories and factories across Eastern Europe, India, and predominantly China. Most of these labs will be making intermediary chemicals for everyday household products, while producing synthetic cannabis as a lucrative sideline.
It's a win-win for the lab and for the wholesale firm ordering up the product. The lab will get $3,000 for making a kilo of synthetic cannabis, which—with basic chemical knowledge and access to a library of chemicals—is something they can make for as little as $75. Once a synthetic cannabinoid compound is created, it is dissolved in a solvent such as acetone and sprayed onto a herbal plant base—usually something soft and fluffy, such as sage or damiana leaves—and put in individual, branded sachets for sale.
The wholesalers will be able to turn this kilo of active ingredient into thousands of $30 deals, making profits most companies would sell their favorite nan for. If firms are able to import the active compound on its own and spray the plant base themselves, the profits escalate even more. Millions can and have been made in the synthetic high industry.
How Is It Sold?
Drug forums are utilized by the companies marketing new synthetic cannabis brands, who'll look to create a buzz online before pushing them out into the mainstream. A privileged set of forum users will receive a sample in the hope they'll write a good review. Within days, "Bubblegum Kush" or whatever it's been called is the hot ticket in halls of residence and head shops (set to be banned from selling legal highs within the next 12 months) across the UK.
As brands, Spice, Black Mamba, Exodus Damnation and all the rest are bullshit chimeras. The idea of a brand is that when you eat a Mars bar or a drink a can of Stella Artois, you know what you are going to get, but the only thing unifying Spice is that the packets have got some kind of Cleopatra-looking eye on them.
In reality, "Spice" and it's stupid eye is merely a mask for what could be any one of hundreds of synthetic cannabinoids, all of an unknown potency, manufactured by any one of hundreds of underground labs across Asia and China. Opening up a packet of Spice offers up an array of parallel universes that makes Schrodinger's Cat look grounded.
Why Are People Collapsing After Smoking Spice?
I spoke to Mike Power, who investigated the online trade in legal highs for his seminal book Drugs 2.0: The Web Revolution That's Changing How the World Gets High. He hates the stuff as much as I do.
"First of all, the drugs are just very potent, so even if they have been successfully used by some, dosage can vary wildly. When manufacturers spray the plant base with the compound, if this is done sloppily, as it is bound to be, you can get hotspots in a batch, where concentration is higher.
"Sometimes people will come up against a new cannabinoid, unseen on the market, and it just gets people totally wasted. Or perhaps people are inexperienced and have had a massive smoke on a joint or bonged it. It's instant white-out gear in many cases. The severity of effects can go from zero to ten very quickly."
There is increasing evidence to show that synthetic cannabinoids are more harmful than cannabis. In September 2013, four months before Colorado fully legalized cannabis, its Department of Public Health launched an investigation into an outbreak of illnesses at hospitals linked to Spice. Dr Tista Ghosh, interim chief medical officer for the state, warned: "Several individuals were in intensive care and three deaths are being investigated as possibly associated. If you have synthetic marijuana, stop using it and destroy it."
A study using data from the 2013 Global Drug Survey, which questioned more than 20,000 people from 123 countries about their drug use, found that users of synthetic cannabis were 30 times more likely to need an ambulance than regular cannabis users. It concluded that synthetic cannabinoids "expose users to a significantly greater risk of short-term harm than natural cannabis."
During March and April in Alabama, US, health officials reported that 462 patients had visited state hospitals after taking synthetic cannabis. Of them, 96 were hospitalized and two died. In 2013, researchers at the University of South Florida unveiled a study officially linking synthetic cannabinoids to strokes in "otherwise healthy adults." In the US, more than 11,000 emergency department visits, a third of which were made by children under 17, were specifically linked to synthetic cannabinoids. New Zealand's National Poisons Center has noted a rise in calls from doctors and ambulance officers reporting breathing problems, paranoia and recurrent psychotic episodes as a result of the drug.
Perhaps most tellingly, a 12-month study on the effects of synthetic cannabinoids, published in Human Psychopharmacology in 2013, found that one in 40 people who had used them had sought emergency medical attention.
Who's Smoking It?
Despite all this, synthetic cannabis has found a loyal customer base, in the UK at least, among three main groups of people, most of whom are notoriously hard to target with health warnings: young people, homeless heroin users, and people locked up in jail.
Kids take the stuff because legal highs are a generational thing, part of a new breed of psychoactive substances including mephedrone that their parents haven't got a clue about. They take it because it's cheap, easy to get hold of from your local participating head shop, petrol station, chippie, or newsagent, and has an air of legality about it.
A survey of new drug trends published by the charity DrugScope last year identified a rapid rise in the use of the drug by opiate users and street homeless. In Birmingham, a homeless charity worker told researchers: "It's a nightmare with our clients. When they come in for opiate treatment it's hard to deal with them after they've smoked it. They are collapsing in the street. One man needed CPR last month. Some of them have been hospitalized several times. They are using it because it's cheap, it's strong, and because those who are out on license will not go back to jail if they are caught taking them, because they're legal."
Synthetic cannabis is all the rage inside Britain's jails. Because it doesn't stink like real marijuana, it can be easily smoked like roll-ups and, more importantly, it doesn't come up in drug tests. According to the Chief Inspector of Prisons, the drug has resulted in large numbers of inmates being treated in hospital for serious physical and mental health problems. In HMP Altcourse in Merseyside, prisoners have nicknamed ambulances "Mambulances" because they are always being called to help inmates who've collapsed from using too much Mamba.
"Even just ten years ago, the idea that people would be smoking these chemicals would have been pure sci-fi," says Power. "Synthetic cannabis turns the bio-chemical lock in our brain in the same way as the plant, but in a much less subtle way, like getting a hammer to your head rather than a stroke on the cheek."
READ ON MUNCHIES: A Bakery Laced Its Cake with Synthetic Marijuana
What Is the Government Doing About It?
New psychoactive substances, such as synthetic cannabis and mephedrone, have left the government's self-proclaimed "successful" policy looking pretty dumb. The laws banning cannabis have resulted in the creation of a more dangerous alternative, as they have done with PMA-filled ecstasy pills. As the new substances get banned, the ones that replace them become more obscure and volatile. No one has a clue what dose to take because the formulas are changing so quickly. But fuck it, who cares: the rich kids can have their bespoke bought pills and just-off-the-boat Colombian flakey coke, while the street kids, ageing heroin users, and people in jail can be the lab rats, falling like flies. But it's all OK, because as David Cameron tells us drug use is falling—it isn't.
"With real weed or hash, users can look, smell, judge it by the bud-leaf ratio, the amount of crystals, the taste, the texture," says Power. "With spice, sometimes even just a toke can be too much, if you've loaded a joint up with it and hit it hard.
"These students are in hospital not because of their own naivety, or because of wily Chinese chemists outsmarting our laws. They have been harmed as a direct result of British politicians' reluctance to regulate, tax, formalize and make safe the cannabis industry.
"It's cowardly, unimaginative and by now, I would argue, given the repeated reports that synthetic, paralegal cannabinoids are riskier than weed, it is actually politicians who are morally responsible for their injuries. Taxes from legal cannabis in Colorado are building schools. The debate is over and it's time to change the law."
My advice for people who want to get stoned rather than getting pissed all the time, is to prioritize your health over the law and over your bank balance: get some fucking good quality cannabis off a reputable seller. Don't buy Spice, it's shit. If you want to save money, scrimp on something else, like don't go to Glastonbury, and instead buy something that isn't robot weed and won't kill you.
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