Let’s Talk about Synthetic Cannabis

The Guardian has an article on the rise of K2, a common brand name variant of ‘synthetic cannabis’ which has been eluding legal frameworks across the globe.

Synthetic cannabis or, more accurately, ‘synthetic cannabinoids’ are new psychoactive substances that attempt to replicate the effects of THC, the active component in cannabis.

If you read the news, you are probably under the impression that synthetic cannabinoids are highly addictive, toxic compounds which are cooked up in some guys bathtub. However, this media narrative ignores the considerable variation in synthetic cannabinoids that have been on the market and the role of prohibitionist government policies in increasing their harm.

Synthetic cannabinoids have actually been around for some time, showing up in Europe in the early 2000s. Their purpose was to exploit gaps in current criminal and therapeutic goods laws which only prohibit ‘THC’ and variants of the cannabis plant.

Synthetic cannabinoids (at least in their early iterations) create chemical mimics of THC which bind to the same CB1 receptor to elicit similar – or in some cases more potent – cannabinoid effects.

These synthetics are being manufactured in China, India and Eastern Europe by chemists who then repackage and sell them to local markets as ‘herbal incense’ with a wink and a nudge to consumers. Along with K2, another common brand name of synthetic cannabis is ‘Spice’.

Most early synthetic cannabinoids were variants of the research chemicals developed by Dr John W. Huffman and bare the ‘JWH’ prefix. These include JWH-018 (the most common in early herbal incense brands) and JWH-073.

The first generation of synthetic cannabinoid products were relatively benign.  Most early reports of hospitalisations due to synthetic cannabinoids were the result of the anxiety of the users, who were not used to the more potent effects of the ‘full agonist’ synthetics.  A 2012 study of synthetic cannabinoid users in Australia found fairly typical effects you would associate with “natural” cannabis.

However, in late 2011, many governments became concerned about synthetic cannabinoid use. One of the chief concerns was that these substances were being used to subvert drug testing laws.For example, the Australian government’s crackdown on synthetics is a direct response to reports of miners in Western Australia smoking it whilst on the job.

Suddenly ‘JWH’ and other first generation synthetic cannabinoids were being listed and their use criminalised. This led overseas chemists to think of novel chemicals which could exhibit similar CB1 receptor effects, but are yet to be listed in global drug schedules.

The result? A toxic batch of synthetics hitting the market which have been linked to overdoses, addiction and death. The most pernicious of the bunch: “Black Mamba” or ADB-PINACA, has been shown to be both neurotoxic and cardiotoxic. Other variants such as AB-Chminaca and MAB-Chminaca, have been linked to kidney damage, seizures and cardiac arrest.

The increase in harm associated with synthetic cannabinoids is a very direct consequence of government policies which focus on prohibition rather than harm reduction.

When you read media reports on novel substances, it’s important to keep in mind that not all under-researched recreational drugs are harmful, nor is outlawing them the only solution.

As for my thoughts on how to solve the increasing use of synthetic cannabinoids? Well, it seems to me that we already have a well understood, safe and popular CB1 agonist which can out-compete these legal synthetics on the market: it’s called cannabis.


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