Crack cocaine has more in common with Coca-Cola than synthetic cannabis does with cannabis. No, that is not some stoner conspiracy theory, it is a verifiable fact. The word "coca" in Coca-Cola refers to Andean coca leaves, which contain cocaine, while the only cannabis in synthetic cannabis is the name.
Still, this hasn't stopped police officers from bending the truth to maximize punishments or government officials from disingenuously conflating the two. Such conflations occurred yet again this week with tweets by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) office in Los Angeles and federal prosecutor Mike Stuart in West Virginia. By suggesting there's a connection between the two "marijuanas," these frontline drug warriors either knowingly deceived the public or revealed they're ignorant about their own field of "expertise." Both possibilities are outright frightening. (Update: On August 21, 2018, the DEA's NY office tweeted that there's no cannabis in synthetic marijuana in an apparent effort to set the record straight.)
Synthetic marijuana likely contributed to the deaths of several people in Connecticut on Wednesday night, and these government officials exploited the headlines to attack botanical cannabis. The tragic irony is that blame should be directed at the government, not cannabis. How so? The U.S. government spent taxpayer dollars to create synthetic cannabis as part of its effort to keep prohibiting real cannabis.
In 1984, Clemson University chemist Dr. John W. Huffman started researching ways to synthesize cannabinoids, the naturally occurring chemicals in cannabis. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)—a historically anti-cannabis agency within the Department of Health and Human Services—contributed huge taxpayer-funded grants to aid in this research. Dr. Huffman and his team ultimately produced almost 500 synthetic cannabinoids that theoretically mimic the chemicals in natural cannabis.
Why fund synthetic cannabinoid research? First, researchers can use the lab-created chemicals to research the potential medical benefits or harms, which is helpful since the government put more research restrictions on cannabis than any other drug in history. Second, if you must concede that the plant has medical value, the medical use of synthetic cannabinoids arguably negates the need to legalize natural cannabis. Finally, you cannot patent cannabis or its natural cannabinoids, but you can patent synthetic imitations, which would allow corporations to make a boatload of cash by overcharging people for a chemical clone.
Or to put it another way, give patients the choice: Risk jail for using a homeopathic plant to ease your suffering, or spend your life savings on an inferior knockoff that funds eight-figure Big Pharma salaries.
Unfortunately, any “halfway decent undergraduate chemistry major” (per Dr. Huffman) could make synthetic cannabis using the doctor’s published research, and so they did, selling it under names like Spice, K2 and Blaze. That’s when people started dropping like flies. Unlike natural cannabis, smoking the synthetic version can kill you, and the rising death count triggered an emergency DEA session to schedule (note: not reschedule) the drug as a Schedule I substance. Per the government’s own 2011 press release, “This emergency action was necessary to prevent an imminent threat to public health and safety.”
"Young people are being harmed when they smoke these dangerous 'fake pot' products and wrongly equate the products' 'legal' retail availability with being 'safe,'" said then-DEA chief Michele M. Leonhart, who later left the DEA after her anti-cannabis agents were caught having Colombian cartel-funded hooker sex orgies.
Using the research from Dr. Huffman and others, chemists now make their own synthetic cannabis and sell it for cheap often in colorful packaging bound to attract kids. The epidemic has gone worldwide with headlines like “Why Synthetic Marijuana Is More Dangerous Than Ever” by Forbes, which wrote that “users of synthetic cannabinoids have been reported to experience intense anxiety, psychotic symptoms and even kidney damage with sporadic reports of deaths from heart attacks and seizures.” Among the more famous incidents, 33 Brooklynites wound up hospitalized a few years ago after smoking synthetic cannabis and acting like a zombie apocalypse hit Bed-Stuy.
“These things are dangerous—anybody who uses them is playing Russian roulette,” remarked Dr. Huffman several years back. “They have profound psychological effects. We never intended them for human consumption.”
How did all this happen again? Oh yeah, the government spent your tax dollars to seek alternative ways to enjoy the benefits of cannabis while maintaining its prohibition… and possibly help corporations get rich off patented synthetics.
So, guess which parts of the country have fewer problems with synthetic cannabis and which retired chemist thinks we should legalize natural cannabis? Wait for it, wait for it…
“I talked to a marijuana provider from California, a doctor, a physician, and he said that in California, that these things are not near the problem they are in the rest of the country simply because they can get marijuana,” said Dr. Huffman in a 2011 interview with ABC. “And marijuana, even for recreational use is quite easy to get in California, and it’s essentially decriminalized. And marijuana is not nearly as dangerous as these compounds… You can’t overdose on marijuana, but you might on these compounds. These things are dangerous, and marijuana isn’t, really.”
Per the 2013 Drug and Alcohol Dependence journal, 93 percent of people who smoke synthetic cannabis would prefer the real thing. Prior to the scheduling of synthetic cannabis, however, the taxpayer-funded, life-taking clone was the option that had yet to criminalized.
Mocking prohibition, Dr. Huffman added, “We declared marijuana illegal in 1937. The federal government passed the law. Now, that really did a lot of good to keep people from smoking marijuana, didn’t it?”
The chemist behind synthetic cannabinoids thinks we should prohibit his creation and legalize natural cannabis. How about the DEA put that in its fuckin' Twitter feed?
Photo credit: Dmitry Ermakov.