Marijuana – An Exploration (Part 5 – Synthetic Marijuana)

Synthetic Marijuana

Since I first came across this substance (well, phenomenon) a number of years ago, it annoyed me. A substance that shady marketers have dubbed Synthetic Marijuana. Back when I first was made aware of it (2009 or so), it was commonly referred to in the media as Bath Salts and by a few other pseudonyms which have likely evolved over the oncoming decade. Back then, sold everywhere from drug paraphernalia shops to C-stores, this stuff seemed easier to obtain than aspirin. Or even healthy food (depending on where one resides in the US of A).

I can put a timeline on it because I first learned of this substance through a segment on the Dr. Oz show. Something that is significant, because I was an avid viewer of Dr. Oz (and The Doctors) for a span of only a year or 2.

In a nutshell:

  1. I wasn’t transitioning any of the information from said shows into my everyday life anyway, so I questioned why I was watching in the first place.

  1. I started to see inconsistencies and problems in the material presented, particularly with regards to Dr. Oz’s program.

I list all my reasons for tuning out in the following post, published in June of 2014. The other 2 are follow-ups, of sorts.

Getting back to the topic of this piece, again, this whole phenomenon was irritating to me. Were talking rubbing 2 pieces of Styrofoam together, or scrapping long fingers down a chalkboard level irritation. All because of the preventability of it all.

Before I go down that road, I should first give my readers somewhat of an idea of what we’re dealing with. The name is really all you need to know. It’s basically synthesized cannabinoid compounds which are made and sold in bulk quantities online, sourced out of Asia. Though many of the compounds are rendered illegal (nothing sold back in 2009 is likely to be lawful now), evading this is as simple as tweaking the formula. Turning this into an endless game of Cat and Mouse between authorities and criminals.

Aside from homeless populations (due to its low price), teenagers were the largest cohort thought to be obtaining this substance. Likely because it is easier (and far less risky) to purchase than, anything else. While I would NEVER argue that marijuana is harmless or benign as a rule of thumb, given the choice of the 2, the best option is clear.

Indeed, I would rather minors not be experimenting with potentially dangerous substances at all. However, assuming prohibition is going to make this happen is delusional thinking at it’s finest. In fact, on par with the assumption that abstinence-only education is going to scare kids out of promiscuous behaviour. It might make parents feel better (“Let’s just put aside this, pesky, difficult little problem . . .”), but it sure as hell isn’t helping minors.

Marijuana, particularly the often ultra high THC/negligible CBD containing strains of today’s marketplace, are not harmless for the developing brains of children. But they are also generally not the misunderstood packets of who knows what that make up the synthetic marijuana marketplace.

There is something to be said about the purity argument (“
You can’t trust that your weed has not been chemically altered before you buy it!”).

I don’t disagree. However, the same goes for anything you buy or consume, legal or prohibited. Indeed, those skirting the law have less incentive to focus on the safety of the end user. None the less, life is fraught with risks, one of them being contamination of one’s consumables.

Keeping marijuana (and really, any commonly sought after substances) at the level of prohibition actually makes the job of quality control more difficult. Unlike food and drug manufacturers that track product production with batch numbers and expiration dates, there is no such tracking of illicit substances. As such, while a food or drug maker can issue a recall based on said numeric tracking codes, the best authorities can do to curtail the distribution of tainted licit substances is PSA campaigns on the local news. Campaigns that are often very easy to overlook due to the fact that almost ALL interaction with the public on the subject of drugs comes across as paranoid propaganda. The government cried wolf too many times over the years. So now all they can do is watch as versatile synthetic compounds, tainted party drugs, and god knows what runs increasingly rampant everywhere.

Do I blame ill-informed PSA campaigns for all of today’s drug whoa’s?

Of course not. There is a whole slew of socio-economic factors at work here. However, I don’t think it helped the situation. Not just the overtly dramatic demonization of the illicit, but the market-driven risk reduction of the truly dangerous. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that opioid addiction is now a common term pretty much no matter where one looks.

Getting back to the original topic (synthetic marijuana), it should be noted that this is not encompassing of the whole picture. While synthetic marijuana is a big part of it, it exists alongside some legalized derivatives under the umbrella term Synthetic cannabinoids. Though the 2 are not often mentioned alongside one another, there are legally available and prescribed synthetic cannabinoids. One is Dronabinol (marketed as Marinol or Syndros), which is approved for use an appetite stimulant, antiemetic (prevents vomiting and nausea), or sleep apnea reliever. Though available in the US, it is no longer available in Canada (I assume due to cannabis-derived options drying up the market).

Other legally synthesized cannabinoid agonists include:

Sativex– Known medically as nabiximols, it is a spray that delivers measured concentrations of both THC and CBD. It’s approved for the treatment of some symptoms of multiple sclerosis and advanced cancer pain.

Cesamet– Known as nabilone, it’s approved to treat chemotherapy-induced vomiting.

Though these are under the umbrella synthetic cannabinoids, I suspect that they make up a very small part of the whole picture (compared to the illegal synthetics).

While so-called synthetic marijuana has been available online since 2004, later variations of the substance are typically very different than those from the early days. Though the older varieties were primarily derived to produce similar effects to marijuana, newer variants often don’t keep this focus. Due to the constantly changing nature of the substance (sometimes even on a batch to batch basis!), all effects (both the positive AND the negative) can be hard to pin down.

Whilst this stuff does not seem to be as easy to get as it was back in 2008/2009 when the newly created epidemic was in its infancy (not to mention that I suspect vaping may take a big chunk out of its market share), it’s still occasionally in the news. While it’s price will almost always be lower than that of marijuana (wherever one procures it), I can’t help but think that easier access will eventually destroy its marketability. If I use alcohol as a comparison, people living in jurisdictions allowing legal marijuana tend to buy less alcohol. I suspect it’s due to the nature of the intoxication. Marijuana tends to be far less rough around the edges than alcohol, and this is almost certainly going to be the case with synthetics too. And marijuana will almost always have the natural element to its advantage. It’s part of a plant, as opposed to synthesized god knows what.

As long as one makes the healthy alternative hard to access, these substances will always have a dominant place in any given market. It’s cheap to produce, fairly easy to sneak past customs checks (border security can’t check everything. The economy would grind to a halt!). But most importantly, people would not be chasing chemical based marijuana alternatives if the real thing weren’t so hard to get.

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