Spice and K2 are new street drugs. Until this week I had not heard of this new trend but apparently folks have been smoking synthetic cannabinoids for some time. These chemicals are usually used in lab research but they can be put onto any old plant material and smoked. A local news article made me take a closer look at the topic. The subject of cannabinoids being familiar let me utilize some interesting local resources in the article...including cannabinoid researcher Jahan Marcu. Check out his blog at www.cannabination.com
Federal authorities in Philadelphia seized parcels of a new drug containing synthetic cannabinoids at a UPS shipping facility last week. Users seek a marijuana-like high with the ability to pass a standard drug test. Technically they are fully legal and with no current prohibitions. The various preparations of these chemical cannabinoid substitutes are sold as “Spice” or “K2.”
Recreational use of the substances has been growing in popularity. The name “Spice” comes from the Frank Herbert Dune series of books. The chemicals are spread on random plant material and packaged sometimes as fragrant, mood affecting incense. Compared to the ubiquitous natural marijuana market though, these synthetics are fairly uncommon.
The human body produces endogenous cannabinoids and the cannabis plant produces exogenous cannabinoids. We have a complex cannabinoid receptor system throughout our bodies. Marijuana contains a variety of unique cannabinoids that bind with these receptors. Synthetic cannabinoids have been created to study the receptor system in animals and humans.
Some of these compounds have been sold to the public and federal authorities seem to be cracking down on the newfound legal high. The Food and Drug Administration or FDA insists that sale for human consumption is not approved.
Last week the Philadelphia Inquirer reported
The confiscated materials are small, silvery plastic bags of dried leaves labeled with the brand name K2 and marketed as incense that can be smoked. In all, Customs and Border Protection in Philadelphia said, it has seized about four pounds of the potpourri-like stuff. READ MORE
The article also reports that on Jan. 6th a small shipment of the ingredient that is the main synthetic cannabinoid in these new drugs, JWH-018, was also seized in Philadelphia.
JWH-018 has been found in legally marketed products around the world lately. The Philadelphia NORML Examiner spoke with two leading cannabinoid experts to find out more.
Jahan Marcu recently published a landmark study highlighting the effect of pure cannabinoids on gliomas or brain cancers. Currently conducting research at Temple University he is one of the few cannabinoid scientists in America. He was familiar with Spice.
“There are a variety of cannabinoids… there are the classical plant cannabinoids that most of us are familiar with; they’re known as tri-cyclic cannabinoids like THC or Marinol. The JWH-018 is a very new compound, it was synthesized in 1998 and it belongs to an ‘indol’ family of cannabinoids. And these indol derivatives have been very powerful research tools in the last decade and have really advanced cannabinoid science. There are hundreds if not thousands of these synthesized cannabinoids.”
Somehow a few of those compounds made it from the labs onto the streets and not just in the US, but also around the world.
“When we see these things starting to appear in designer drugs or herbal [products] it is a concern because not much is known about these compounds. They are very new and are used to test receptor function.”
Marcu explained that JWH-018 is a standard ingredient, but not the only thing in Spice.
“An endogenous cannabinoid was found [in some spice]. Varying amounts of a few different synthetic cannabinoids have been found around the world; in Europe the US, Japan. So when we talk about Spice we’re not just talking about JWH compounds but we’re talking about a lot of other things.”
The end-user who purchases the commonly marketed versions of the products containing mixtures of chemical cannabinoid substitutes seeks the euphoric effect of activating his or her cannabinoid receptors.
Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of national NORML and a respected author on the topic of cannabinoids. We spoke with him yesterday. Paul explained that the frontal lobe of the brain has a dense concentration of CB1 cannabinoid receptors. The JWH-018 and other synthetic cannabinoids are likely activating those receptors.
Armentano is also an expert on drug testing. Natural marijuana uses the delta-9-THC molecule mainly to produce the high, thus standard drug screens only look for THC metabolites. “You could create some test for these synthetic cannabinoids,” Armentano said.
But if you smoked these synthetics would you pass a workplace or other current, standard drug screen?
This fact may be the real reason behind the drug’s growing appeal. Users are beating the system at it’s own game. Unlike the tens of millions of regular marijuana consumers in the country, the synthetic users are legally and in full privacy, activating their cannabinoid receptors at will. The cost of introducing a new set of screening to the drug tests administered nationwide would be hefty.
Though it may seem like a clean getaway for the Spicers there are some serious unknowns. The most pressing questions regard the untested impact long-term ingestion of these synthetic cannabinoids can have on individuals.
We have 6,000 years of humans ingesting natural marijuana. We know that natural cannabis is non-toxic and can call it ‘safe’ for most individuals using it for medication or recreation. But humans have been using these new chemicals for less than 15 years.