Starting around 2011, it happened in the nation’s capital—a lot.
Police responding to reports of a crazy person, naked, yelling, running down the street, obviously overdosing on…something.
Most suspected meth. Some suspected LSD. Others thought the crack epidemic was back. And an uninformed few thought it was the result of marijuana addiction—that this was reefer madness.
But it wasn’t any of those substances. It was, in fact, a synthetic substance made to look like marijuana, sometimes smell a little like marijuana, sold at convenience stores and truck stops as incense or another substance “not for human consumption.”
These synthetic marijuana products were packaged in flashy, colorful packages, looking almost like candy, sporting names like K2, Scooby Snax, Bizarro, Spice, Mr. Nice Guy and Red Dawn X. It looked like fun stuff, OK stuff, dressed up and safe.
But the bad shit it did to people was all too real.
According to a report in the Washington Post, medical professionals handled 50 overdoses in May of 2014. But in June, that number mushroomed to 439, leading to a citywide crackdown on the sale of synthetic drugs that were once available at gas stations and convenience stores for as little as $5 a pack.
Synthetic marijuana is not just one standard product, according to the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health. Chemicals are sprayed over plant material, which some describe as looking like alfalfa or kale, then sold as ‘herbal incense.’ It is sometimes sold in liquid form for use in an e-cigarette or vape pen. And a single package could contain multiple drugs. The department warned that buying the same brand twice was no guarantee that the drugs—and their effects—would be the same.
Users reported that smoking synthetic marijuana can, at first, seem like smoking any other cannabis product. But then the real effects kick in, causing hallucinations, anxiety, paranoia, incoherence, aggression and even death.
D.C. banned the substance, but incidences of usage continued.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, alarmed at the continued increase in use and the violence associated with synthetic marijuana, proposed emergency legislation to strengthen penalties for the illegal sales of the substance.
Today, hopefully, it’s off the streets and out of the stores in the District. But where did this stuff come from?
Development of the first synthetic compounds has been traced back to the 1980s, created by researchers looking for new treatments for HIV and multiple sclerosis. The first appearance as a recreational drug was in Germany, around 2008.
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And what are the compounds sprayed onto this leafy material?
Researchers point to Clemson University professor and chemist John Huffman. It was Huffman experimenting with various synthetic chemical links to the body’s cannabinoid system that led to the development of hundreds of synthetic cannabinoids, in a study ironically funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Once some of those compounds got out of the lab and could be easily made, as well as their promotion as a sort of ‘super weed’ with a big earnings potential for anybody selling them, things began getting out of hand.
The Washington Post reported figures from the American Association of Poison Control Centers, showing that the number of calls to poison-control centers involving synthetic cannabinoids soared from 112 in 2009 to 6,549 in 2011.
During that same period, national statistics show forensic laboratories turned up three strains carrying Huffman’s initials: JWH-018, JWH-073, JWH-200—as well as two other synthetic compounds—5,450 times. In 2011, the DEA banned five synthetic cannabinoids. Three of them came from Huffman.
Law enforcement believes that the scourge is now over. But chances are that synthetic marijuana is still available, somewhere.
Many group these synthetic drugs into the same family as marijuana, playing right into the ‘reefer madness’ stereotype: drug-addled youth gone amuck, the war on drugs needs to continue, blah blah blah.
But the real facts about synthetic marijuana support what it really was, or is: a curious chemist’s plan to help people fight multiple sclerosis, an experiment that, unfortunately, got away from him. It was a good plan gone wrong, just like LSD (originally a headache treatment) or ecstasy (designed to improve psychotherapy). At least those other two substances still work as a sort of chemical therapy for certain conditions, and under strict controls. But synthetic marijuana needs to stay gone. Way gone.