Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Fake Pot Becoming Scarce

by Ian Hoppe

Recently, I’ve noticed the periodic emergence and decline of various blends of the designer drug(s), synthetic cannabis (a.k.a. “Funky Green Stuff,” “K2,” “Spice,” “Haze,” “Herbal Potpourri,” and “Fake Stuff”).

Synthetic cannabis is a product marketed as a marijuana replacement. It usually comes in small plastic or aluminum packages that are often brightly colored and contain anywhere from one to five grams. Most packages are explicitly marked as “not for human consumption.” However, it is understood by everyone involved that the product is meant to be smoked. This disclaimer, just like the disclaimer at the end of alcohol commercials warning not to drink their product and drive, is there for liability purposes. So when the inevitable happens, the company can say, “Well, we told them not to do that.”
That is not to say that these products are (necessarily) dangerous or unhealthy, only that little is known about long term effects among frequent users. Part of the problem in gathering consistent information is the lack of consistency of the products in question. Though the package may be labeled as an “Herbal Smoking Blend,” this is a bit misleading, as is the term “Synthetic Cannabis.” These products are indeed a mixture of fragrant potpourris that are then sprayed with some form of synthesized chemicals. These chemicals only simulate the effect of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol; the psychoactive component of marijuana). It is important to note that these synthetic chemicals are not equivalent to THC in the way they affect the mind and body.

Some users I’ve talked to report a variance of reactions to the product, including intense paranoia and psychosis, especially among users who are prone to substance induced psychotic episodes (see DSM-IV-TR code 292.11). One such user said that, “I wouldn’t even recommend it to someone I hated.” Furthermore, there seems to be some research that indicates chemical dependence among long-term, heavy users, though the withdrawal symptoms mirror those of organic cannabis. This is not the case with everyone, however. The majority of users I spoke to expressed excitement about the products, citing the fact that they are legal to purchase, do not show up on drug screens, are widely available (compared to organic cannabis) at a lower price-per-gram, and offer a different experience than the real thing.

What makes these products designer drugs is their constant bout with legal standards. You see, as these products become available, the federal and state governments scramble to outlaw them. However, given the huge amount of money to be made by their manufacturing, the companies simply synthesize a new “blend” of chemicals that is not (yet) outlawed and rerelease to the public. In April of 2010, The State of Alabama, following up on pressure from the ever-present buzzkills; Partnership for a Drug Free Community, outlawed the sale of both Salvia Divinorum as well as a couple of synthetic blends with the passing of HB697. This legislation, however, was limited in its scope and only outlawed a couple of the possible blends. This meant that it was only a couple of months until the products appeared once again in head-shops and adult stores in the state.

Not to be outdone, in July, the Federal Government passed The Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 as part of a larger bill expanding the authority of the FDA. The legislation places five of the known synthetic cannabis blends as well as other designer drugs, including the infamous “bath salts,” into section I of The Controlled Substances Act. As a result, the availability of synthetic cannabis has dwindled as suppliers regroup and find alternatives to bring to market.

This recent onslaught of legislation and enforcement on the state and federal level has caused a bit of a chilling effect among the distributors in the area. Most have either stopped selling any similar products, making them available via request only, or requiring that the purchaser sign a sheet alleviating the seller of liability. I did speak to a couple of shop employees and owners, all of which requested to remain anonymous, who told me that the restriction on their sales was mostly fallout from their distributor’s reluctance to sell in the state. Two of the local head shops that I visited have ceased selling any kind of product that may be construed as illegal presently or in the future. Another had a kind of herbal tea “pain reliever” available for purchase, in both tea-leaf and capsule form. Querying one of the employees only returned reassurances that it was legal and very different from the synthetic blends we’ve seen lately.

For the economically minded, it is understandable that this chilling effect has had a fairly significant effect on prices. As I mentioned above, some of the users I spoke to mentioned the price of the products as a major driver of preference for “the fake stuff” over organic weed. When the first generation of synthetic hit the market (i.e. pre-HB697), the prices were roughly half of street prices of real marijuana ($10-12/g. vs $20-24/g). Given the recent legislation and restrictions on the market, and thus supply, users estimate that prices have increased around 50% and continue to rise. This still puts these heavily restricted blends lower than the real stuff, with the burden of risk entirely on the distributors. Given this dichotomy, I think we can expect prices to rise to at or above the street price-per-unit of its canonically illegal substitute to compensate for this risk.

It is unclear to me whether or not this product offers enough of a different experience, higher availability, and/or low enough long-run price to sustain itself underground. At the moment, it seems as if these synthetic cannabis blends will eventually be outlawed in all of their forms or at least regulated and enforced so heavily that the costs of manufacture and distribution outweigh the prospective revenue. It is then, I think, that the masses will return to their beloved marijuana, decrying the brief tryst with her test-tube sister.

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