One of the more informative recent newspaper articles on the issue of synthetic cannabis products available under a range of brand names now currently available in the USA.
Here’s a taste of what you’ll learn about the issues.
Addicts among the homeless use spice not as an alternative to marijuana, as was the case with its original growth in the United States, but as a cheap alternative to hard drugs. A dab of heroin or meth runs $10, while a spice joint can be had for as little as a buck.
It first appeared as a consumer product in Europe in 2004, most popularly under the brand name Spice, hence the generic term today. Within five years, it was widely available across the United States: the legal synthetic version of marijuana, with no laws hindering production or distribution. It was cheap, and it didn’t show up on drug tests.
“That’s where it started,” explains Wilking, of the Salt Lake City Police Department. “People were having to go in for urine samples — for jobs or probation — and here was this product that was very much like marijuana, or supposed to be very much like marijuana, but that you wouldn’t test dirty for.”
Business boomed. Hundreds of brands emerged, bearing names like K2, Black Mamba, Mojo and Mr. Nice Guy, which were sold as “incense” in smoke shops and gas stations for as little as $5.
Across the country, this indiscriminate and unregulated combining of herbs and chemicals, purchased through dubious channels, led to ill effects and emergency-room visits. Users had no idea what they were getting or in what concentrations, and distributors had little clue what they were selling.
President Barack Obama signed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act into law, classifying several synthetic compounds commonly found in spice as Schedule I drugs, highly restricted as having severe abuse potential and safety concerns. Manufacturers and street chemists reacted by altering spice formulations to circumvent the new restrictions.
The quickly shifting recipes resulting from this “cat-and-mouse game between drugmakers and lawmakers,” as Shay describes it, created more than a law-enforcement problem.
“It goes back-and-forth and back-and-forth,” Shay says, “and as it does, the strength of the drug changes, and how it affects you changes.”
Dozens of analogs and derivatives have sprung up, their effects unknown — except that some of them are killing people.
“We do see deaths from these synthetic cannabinoids,” says Utah Chief Medical Examiner Erik Christensen.
How many is an open question. “We find them only when we test for them specifically, which means we have to have some suspicion based on the information available at the time a death is reported to us.”
The Utah Department of Health confirms positive findings of synthetic cannabinoids from four deaths in 2016, four in 2017 and one so far in 2018, though the department acknowledges that it only began regularly testing for synthetics this year, thanks to recent grant funding.