Tox Tuesday: The evolution of Spice

Since their first documented appearance in the United States in 2008, synthetic drugs have created a trend that both authorities and health care officials alike are struggling to contain. As a recent article explains, this is due to the ever-changing formulas and chemical structures used in their creation. Because of this, these drugs are difficult to track, control, and penalize by current drug laws. What is even more unsettling is that these new compounds also make it impossible to predict the short- and long-term side effects these drugs will have. 

One of the most popular synthetic drugs is synthetic marijuana, also known as Spice. After it’s produced in a laboratory, the chemical mixture is sprayed on dried plant material and when smoked, mimics the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in regular marijuana.

In order to understand the concern behind synthetic drugs like Spice, however, understanding their history is a must. This history all begins in the 1980s when scientists first discovered the cannabinoid receptor as the system in the human brain that is activated when it comes in contact with THC. While scientists were already able to synthetically create THC at this time, it had long been a mystery on how exactly the compound interacted with the user and where in the body that interaction was taking place.

As stated in the article, the discovery of the cannabinoid receptor gave scientists the missing piece of information as they could then study how the receptor reacted to various synthetic compounds.

“It took the black-magic aspect of marijuana’s activity and gave it a biomolecular mechanism in your body,” Brian F. Thomas, a principal scientist with RTI International, a research institute, said in the article. “Because you had this cannabinoid receptor, you could then look and find new compounds that can bind to that receptor.”

This sparked the interest of another scientist by the name of John W. Huffman, who realized that the only way to understand how the receptor actually worked was by examining its interactions with different synthetic compounds. Funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, he produced hundreds of synthetic cannabinoids, so named because of the way the drugs interact with the receptor, not because they emulate the side effects of marijuana, the article states.

Huffman’s research produced pharmacological tools that helped explain what happens in the brain and created an entire line of chemicals that as the article states, enlightened many other scientists as well. However, what Huffman said he failed to realize at the time was that he was unintentionally writing a recipe book of street drugs.

“The chemistry to make these things is very simple and very old,” Huffman said in the article. “You only have three starting materials and only two steps. In a few days, you could make 25 grams, which could be enough to make havoc.”

The article goes on to say that the exact chronology of what happened next is hard to pin down. What is known, however, is that Huffman synthesized one compound called JWH-018 in 1993 and published the formula in a series of papers, journals and a book called “The Cannabinoid Receptors.”

Then by late 2008, this compound was identified 4,500 miles away in a forensic laboratory in Germany. The manufacturers had sprayed the synthetic cannabinoid onto plant leaves and sold it—along with several other cannabinoids—under the name Spice. JWH-018 was the “first synthetic cannabinoid to be identified as a product adulterant in Germany,” the Drug Enforcement Administration later said in a report.

During this time the world was becoming increasingly interconnected through the use of the internet and synthetic cannabinoids continued to gain popularity—soon becoming a much cheaper alternative to real marijuana. Today, as more and more variations have been produced, these synthetic compounds have become much stronger and their effects have started to mimic stronger, more dangerous drugs.

While it is difficult to formulate an exact number of Spice users, reports from poison control centers and forensic data from local laboratories across the U.S. give an idea of how use has increased over the years. In 2009 for example, not a single state in the U.S reported more than 100 cases of synthetic marijuana use. However, by 2010 a report by the National Institute of Health found that 11,406 emergency room visits that year alone were associated with synthetic marijuana use. An overwhelming amount of these cases were among adolescents, with 75% being between the ages of 12 and 29, the article states.

While the long-term health effects of any synthetic drug have not been studied, reports of strange incidents, along with severe, often fatal health outcomes have been frequent among Spice users. According to the article, Spice users who visit poison control centers have a rapid heart rate, instances of agitation, vomiting, confusion, and hallucinations. In few cases, a rise in blood pressure has led to heart attacks.

To combat this growing problem, government officials on both the local and nationwide level continue to work on making the growing list of synthetic cannabinoids illegal. In fact, the article states that the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act, signed by President Obama in 2012, categorized 26 different types of synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones as schedule 1 drugs. Since then, the DEA has used its emergency scheduling authority to put three more synthetic cathinone compounds on the lists of illegal drugs. State legislation is also taking initiative to control synthetic drugs; 43 states since 2010 have actively pushed through legislation enforcing the illegality of these substances, the article states.

However, some officials believe that the crack down on synthetic cannabinoids has led manufacturers of the drugs to experiment with even more previously unexplored chemistries that are unknown to law enforcement. Out-of-country manufacturers, mainly from Southeast Asia, skirt the legal system by tweaking formulas to create new chemical compounds and hiding under labels that say “not for human consumption.” The effects of these altered drugs are unknown prior to being sold and have caused hospitalizations throughout several states.

The recent report from a Pennsylvania police department explains that some police officers also believe at least one variation of Spice was recently laced with PCP, a dissociative drug which often has hallucinogenic side effects, and sold in at least one area of the state. Officers came to this conclusion after several overdoses and emergency room visits were reported at the local hospital.

In the article, Chip Dunham, director of emergency services for Wilkes-Barre General Hospital in Pennsylvania, said he wonders what dangers will be discovered down the line, noting the effects of synthetic cannabinoids have little to no resemblance to those of regular marijuana.

“People who smoke pot don’t show up at the ER. They show up at the McDonald’s,” he said.

DEA special agent and spokesman Joseph Moses also said in the article that keeping up with manufacturers in terms of individually legislating chemical compounds is difficult when they can create a new version that lawmakers have not yet had the chance to ban. In fact, DEA forensic lab experts said in the article they have been identifying two to three new synthetic drug compounds each month.

Even when a manufacturer or distributor gets arrested for a chemical compound not yet banned, prosecutors have to present evidence under the Federal Analog Act that the substance has a similar chemical structure to a controlled substance, has a similar pharmacological effect, and was intended for human consumption.

“These cases could be difficult to prove because you generally get into a battle of the experts, a battle of the chemists, about what this means,” Moses said.

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