Synthetic Cannabinoids

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New Drugs Get Same Old Response on Capitol Hill [FEATURE]

Confronted with the rising popularity of new synthetic drugs, Congress is responding in a reflexive prohibitionist manner. Last month, bills aimed at banning the substances moved forward in Congress, despite the protests of advocates and businessmen that lawmakers are simply repeating the mistakes of drug prohibition.

Congress never met a new drug it didn't want to ban. (image via Wikimedia)
The bills are aimed at two distinct classes of designer drugs -- synthetic cannabinoids or fake marijuana sold under names such as Spice and K2, and the synthetic methcathinone derivatives mephedrone and MDVP commonly sold as "bath salts" under names such as Ivory Wave that produce a high likened to those of cocaine, methamphetamine, or ecstasy.

A number of states have moved against fake weed or bath salts or both. In action earlier this year, the DEA imposed a temporary emergency ban on fake weed, but it has not moved yet against bath salts. Now, Congress is poised to get in on the action.

H.R. 1254
, the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011 and its Senate companion bill, S. 605 would make both fake marijuana and bath salts Schedule I controlled substances, like LSD, heroin, and marijuana. They also attempt to block new designer drugs by banning whole classes of similar chemical compounds. And they seek to expand the period for which the DEA can impose an emergency ban on a new drug, which the agency did earlier this year with synthetic cannabinoids. That bill was moving in House committees last week. 

Two other bills that would do essentially the same thing have also been filed in the Senate. They are S. 409, introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and S. 839, sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). These bills, though, are aimed only at bath salts. (An additional House bill, H.R. 1571, identified by the Library of Congress legislative tracking system as related to S. 409, has not moved out of committee.)

The bath salts drugs have been associated with spectacular bad reactions, including increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, agitation, hallucinations, extreme paranoia and delusions, and some reports of violent behavior. Fake weed has been associated with less dangerous bad reactions, including confusion, nausea and panic attacks.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers warned in May that it had seen a nine-fold increase in bath salts-related calls over the previous year, and that was with less than half the year gone. Last year, centers reported 302 calls; as of May of this year, they had received more than 2,200 calls.

That would clearly seem to suggest that use of bath salts is on the rise, but what it means beyond that is not so clear. Without a handle on actual use levels, it is difficult to determine how frequent such adverse reactions are, or how they compare to reported adverse events with other drugs.

Still, Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center, said the substances are the worst he has seen in 20 years at the poison center. "These products create a very severe paranoia that we believe could cause users to harm themselves or others," he said.

Oddly enough, for drugs that are touted as being so horrible, evidence from Britain suggests that somebody likes them quite a bit. According to a report last month in the Guardian, which cited recently released scientific research, "Mephedrone is more popular among UK clubbers than ecstasy despite being banned."

"The legal status wasn't considered important," said Fiona Measham, a criminology lecturer who led the research. "Among the people we spoke to, I was surprised how much they liked it, how much they enjoyed it. They wanted to take more and were prepared to seek it out and buy it on the illegal market."

"Ivory Wave" is one popular brand of mephedrone. (image via Wikimedia)
But Congress isn't paying attention to foreign researchers. In a statement typical of congressional discourse on the issue, in a hearing last week, Rep. Charles Dent (R-PA), the sponsor of HB 1254, first listed a number of anecdotal scare stories, then proceeded to warn his colleagues that the drugs were not innocent. "These substances are marketed with innocent sounding names," he said, "but these labels are total misnomers designed to facilitate their legal sale. These drugs have no legitimate medicinal or industrial purposes."

"We are in a new era of drugs," said Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), as she prepared to deal with them with the same tired approach Congress has taken with other drugs -- by banning them.

There is a better way, said reform advocates and representative of trade groups.

"Lawmakers are poised to repeat mistakes from the past by creating ineffective laws that will criminalize more people and drive these substances into the illicit market," said Grant Smith, federal policy coordinator with the Drug Policy Alliance. "History has clearly shown that prohibiting a drug makes it more dangerous, not less. Instead of more failed drug prohibition, Congress would be much more successful with an approach that restricts how these drugs are marketed, provides comprehensive drug education, and has strict age controls. To best reduce the harms of these drugs, Congress should instead support rigorous scientific study to better understand what is in these products, and establish a robust system of regulation and control of the synthetic drug market."

"This application of the law is irresponsible," said Daniel Francis, executive director of the Retail Compliance Association, which represents retail outlets that sell (or sold) K2 as he addressed HB 1264. "It is the most irresponsible thing a lawmaker can do, an act of prohibition. I hope they wear the responsibility of the consequences of these acts on their minds forever. This law will force even less understood compounds into the market."

"This legislation comes at a time when Washington is seeking to reduce federal spending. Yet, enforcing a federal ban on synthetic drugs isn't going to be cheap and we already know from marijuana prohibition that this approach won't work," said Smith. "The irony is that the only reason that people use synthetic marijuana is because the real thing is illegal. But passage of this legislation will only further escalate the war on drugs, send more people to jail, exacerbate health harms, and ignore four decades of comprehensive research and review that confirms the war on drugs approach has failed," he added.

"The bill covers some potential ingredients in herbal incense products, by no means all, and these ingredients are invisible, no one, no police officer, or retailer can tell what is in the product, if it is legal or not, and this law provides no direction whatsoever in how one is to determine this," pointed out Francis.

The Retail Compliance Association, which sent a letter of concern to Congress about the issue in April, expects that its efforts to block passage of HB 1264 this year will be in vain. But that doesn't mean it is rolling over and playing dead. Instead, the group said it is forming a coalition to file a legal challenge to the bill "immediately after it passes."

It has taken decades to get past the hysteria and fear-mongering surrounding traditional drugs, and that is a task that is by no means completed. It would be nice if we didn't have to go through the same sort of rigmarole with these new designer drugs, but we do. At least this time around, there are people around from the beginning who and willing to stand and fight.

Washington, DC
United States

New Zealand to Ban Synthetic Marijuana This Week

In a shift from an April decision to regulate rather than prohibit synthetic cannabinoids, the government of New Zealand's ruling National Party has moved instead to ban them by the end of this week. It is rushing to amend the Misuse of Drugs Amendments Bill to criminalize some 43 fake weed products currently on store shelves.

Synthetic cannabinoids like Spice will be banned in Kiwiland this week. (image via Wikimedia)
The move will create an emergency 12-month ban while the government crafts a detailed response to the Law Commission's May report on psychoactive substances, which noted that under current New Zealand laws, "a psychoactive substance can be manufactured, imported, and sold without restriction until it is proven harmful and is either regulated or prohibited." The commission called for that burden of proof to be reversed, so that the industry would be required to prove its products are safe.

"We are going to create temporary class drug orders that will allow me to place a 12-month ban on these currently unregulated psychoactive substances and any new ones that come along," Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne announced. "The bottom line is that these products are generally untested and we do not know the long-term effects of their use and we are not about to just let it all happen and pick up damaged young people at the end."

The cabinet would be "looking carefully at crafting permanent legislation in the foreseeable future," said Prime Minister John Key. "We are not going to stand by while these substances are constantly being created and being made available for sale," he added.

Synthetic cannabinoids, or "cannibimimetics," in the Law Commission's parlance, are synthetic compounds that mimic the action of THC, producing highs similar to that of natural marijuana. The compounds are sprayed on herbal material and sold in corner stores under names like Spice and K2 in the US, although Kronic appears to be a favorite name in Australia and New Zealand.

Under the emergency action, fake marijuana will be carry the same penalties as Class C1 drugs such as marijuana, but mere possession of it will not be a criminal offense.

"We are sending a very strong message that we don't think there is any case for these drugs and we believe they should be taken off the marketplace and we are sending a message to young people that we don't want them taking them," Key said. "It's unacceptable to the government that a product that causes potentially lethal risks is available freely to our young people. If someone's in possession of the products for their own personal use, they could continue to legally use it."

The opposition Labor Party is also supporting the temporary ban. "The government needed to act, you can't have product out there with potentially damaging effects. You should ban the product until they can prove it's safe," party leader Phil Goff told TVNZ's Breakfast Show Monday morning.

But importer Matt Bowden, who seeks regulation of fake marijuana, warned that prohibition would lead to more potent drugs being developed and would create a black market and empower organized crime.

"Prohibition is counterproductive. It's a failed policy which does nothing for consumers," he said. "A black market happens when you make something illegal and there is a high consumer demand. Right now they are available for a couple of weeks, consumers will be stockpiling them.''

Another interested party, Chris Fowlie of the Hempstore, which sells the products, told TV ONE that despite sensational reports in the media, there are no actual scientific, peer-reviewed studies that back up the sometimes lurid accusations of harm.

"Well, they aren't making it up, but they aren't peer reviewed, so for all we know they could be talking about the same person complaining many times, it could be one particular brand causing all the problems, we don't know, so until we have those studies, it's guess work," he said. "The law does say that the classification of drugs does have to be based on evidence, that's built into the misuse of drugs act and Peter Dunne is ignoring that."

Fowlie predicted that the ban will create new problems. "Firstly you will see retailers dumping stock, we for one will be having a big sale to get rid of everything we've got, and you will see new products come out immediately after the ban."

New Zealand

More States Go After Synthetic Drugs

Although new synthetics are coming to market faster than governments can ban them, a number of states have moved in recent weeks to criminalize their possession and distribution. In Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, state governments have enacted bans on synthetic cannabinoids ("fake pot") or synthetic stimulants ("bath salts"), or both. In South Dakota, they took a slightly different path to arrive at the same end.

Fake pot goes under many brand names. Spice is one. (image via wikimedia.org)
Synthetic cannabinoids are marketed as "incense" under a variety of names, including Spice and K-2. They are currently the subject of a one-year emergency ban by the DEA, which is set to expire at the end of February. "Bath salts" are made from methcathinone analogues, typically mephedrone and MDPV, and produce a high likened to cocaine, methamphetamines, and ecstasy. The DEA lists them as a "drug of concern," but has yet to act against them.  They are sold under names like Bliss, Ivory Wave, and the less mellow-sounding Charley Sheene and Drone.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed into law House Bill 1039 on May 31. It criminalizes the possession of "bath salts" by making them a Schedule I controlled substance. The new law makes permanent an emergency ban on the drugs that went into effect in January.

In Louisiana, the legislature has passed House Bill 12, which bans both synthetic marijuana and "bath salts." Gov. Bobby Jindal, who in January issued an executive emergency ban on the synthetic stimulants and who made this bill part of his legislative agenda, is expected to sign it shortly. Under the bill, both fake pot and "bath salts" will be classified as Schedule I drugs and their possession or distribution will be punished accordingly. This bill is set to go into effect July 15.

In Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton (D) has signed into law HF0057, which criminalizes bath salts, fake pot, and 2-CE, as well as any substances that are "substantially similar" in chemical structure and pharmacological effects to illegal drugs. That law goes into effect Friday. Although all of the substances are placed on Schedule I of the controlled substances list, possession of fake pot is a misdemeanor and sale of fake pot is a gross misdemeanor. Possession or sale of bath salts or 2-CE is a felony.

"Please do not use as SNUFF," a web site that peddles "bath salts" helpfully advises (ivory-wave.com)
In Minnesota, at least, retailers are fighting back. Three of them filed suit in Hennepin County (Minneapolis) District Court Monday charging that the law is too vague and broad and is not backed by scientific proof. They also argue that the law provides no criteria for determining if a substance is "substantially similar" to an illegal drug and that the ban infringes on individuals' right to privacy and pursuit of happiness.

Consumers and retailers won't know "if they're committing a crime or not," said attorney Marc Kurzman, who is representing the stores. "You shouldn’t have to get the answer by being charged and going through criminal trials," he said. 

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett (R) last week signed into law Senate Bill 1006, which bans the possession, sale, and use of fake pot, "bath salts," and, for good measure, the psychedelic designer drug 2-CE and salvia divinorum. Possession of the proscribed substances can earn you a year in prison, while sales or possession with intent can get you five years. The law will go into effect in late August, 60 days after it was signed into law.

"If left unchecked, synthetic drugs could have developed into the most dangerous drug crisis since methamphetamine labs found their way into our state,'' Corbett said in a press release announcing his signature. "This ban on synthetic drugs sends a strong message that Pennsylvania will not tolerate the use of these chemicals."

In South Dakota, Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) back in March signed into law Senate Bill 34, which will go into effect Friday. In deals with the fake pot and "bath salts" "threat" not by criminalizing them, but by making it a crime to use, possess, manufacture, or distribute them -- or any other substance -- to get high. In South Dakota, it is already a crime to have ingested an illegal drug; now, it will be a crime to ingest legal substances if it is for the purpose of intoxication.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) last week signed into law Senate Bill 54 criminalizing the sale, manufacture, and possession of synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic stimulants. Possession of synthetic cannabinoids is now punishable by up to six months in jail for a first offense and three years in prison for a second offense, while manufacture or distribution garners up to six years in prison. Possession of synthetic stimulants now garners up to a year in jail for a first offense, while distribution of manufacture earns a number of years in prison, depending on the quantity involved.

"By classifying dangerous synthetic narcotics as illegal in the state of Wisconsin we are giving law enforcement the ability to take these destructive substances off of our streets and out of our neighborhoods," Gov. Walker said in a signing statement.

For a master list of states that have banned or are considering banning or otherwise controlling mephedrone and MDPV ("bath salts"), go here. For a master list of states that have banned or are considering banning or otherwise controlling fake pot, go here.

Czechs Ban New Synthetic Drugs, Salvia, Ketamine

The Czech Parliament has moved to ban some 33 synthetic substances now being sold in the country, including synthetic cannabinoids and mephedrone, which is often marketed as bath salts and has stimulant effects similar to cocaine or amphetamines. Also included in the prohibitionist legislation is salvinorin A, the active ingredient in salvia divinorum, and the weird hallucinogen ketamine.

packaged synthetics (image via wikimedia.org)
The European Union banned mephedrone last November, while the US DEA banned synthetic cannabinoids effective March 1. The DEA considers mephedrone a drug of interest, but has yet to ban it. About 20 US states have banned synthetic cannabinoids, with action pending in others this year, while similar moves against mephedrone in the states are just getting underway.

The Czech Senate voted 67-0 April 4 to approve the legislation, which amends the Czech drug law. The House passed the bill last month. According to the Prague Daily Monitor, President Vaclav Klaus is expected to sign the bill into the law before the end of this month.

Some senators worried that rushing the legislation into effect would not allow merchants to get rid of their supplies in time, but that concern fell on deaf ears. Deputy Pavel Bem of the governing Civic Democrats, a sponsor of the legislation, argued that the ban should go into effect as quickly as possible.

The Czech government decriminalized drug possession
in personal use amounts in January 2010. It is unclear how these newly criminalized substances fit into the decriminalization scheme or whether personal use amounts for them have been set.

Prague
Czech Republic

New Zealand to Regulate Rather Than Prohibit Synthetic Marijuana

The government of New Zealand plans to regulate and restrict access to legal synthetic cannabinoids, government spokesmen said last week. Under the plan, synthetic cannabinoids could not be sold to people under 18, and they would face regulation of their packaging, marketing, and sales.

New Zealand takes a reasoned approach to fake pot. (Image via Wikimedia)
The government is following the advice of the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs, which reviews controlled drugs and other psychoactive substances and recommends how such substances should be classified. The committee found no basis for banning fake pot, but said it was unacceptable for the products to be available without regulation.

Products containing synthetic cannabinoids have appeared in markets worldwide in recent years, typically sold as "incense" under brand names including Spice and K2. A number of European governments have responded by banning the substances, as has the US DEA, which imposed an emergency ban earlier this year.

Americans states have responded similarly, with more than a dozen of them imposing bans before the DEA acted, and moves are afoot in other state legislatures this year to enact more bans. California, however, responded similarly to what is proposed in New Zealand, banning it only for minors.

Under the New Zealand proposal, in addition to the ban on minors, sales would be banned in places where minors gather and there would be restrictions on advertising. Fake pot products would have to be sold in child-resistant containers and would have to be labeled with the synthetic cannabinoids they contain.

Moving synthetic cannabinoids from an unregulated substance to a restricted substance under the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act of 2005 will require parliamentary approval.

Auckland
New Zealand

Minnesota Head Shop Owner Says Fake Marijuana Ban Won't Work

Location: 
Duluth, MN
United States
Jim Carlson, the owner of a head shop, says a new federal ban on the sale of five chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana won't make much difference - he'll just stock brands that use other, still-legal substances. Carlson said that with about 210 similar chemicals available, the manufacturers will try to keep one step ahead of the government. "Unfortunately he is correct," said Barbara Carreno, a DEA spokeswoman in Washington, who confirmed Tuesday that many suppliers are offering retailers products with new chemicals. "There are many of these substances and we chose five common ones because we don't have the resources to study all of them."
Publication/Source: 
Minnesota Public Radio (MN)
URL: 
http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2011/03/01/fake-pot/

Synthetic Marijuana Widely Used at Naval Academy, Some Midshipmen Say

Location: 
Annapolis, MD
United States
A synthetic form of marijuana is widely used at the U.S. Naval Academy because it cannot be detected in routine drug tests, according to several former midshipmen. Since its introduction at the academy last year, synthetic marijuana has become popular among rank-and-file midshipmen and on the football and wrestling teams. Some isolated corners of the historic Annapolis campus have become well-known gathering spots for smoking it.
Publication/Source: 
The Washington Post (DC)
URL: 
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/27/AR2011022703605.html

DEA Bans Synthetic Marijuana

By the time you read these words, the possession and sale of synthetic cannabinoids will be a federal crime. The DEA announced late Monday afternoon that its emergency rules banning the fake weed would go into effect Tuesday, March 1.

No legal highs for you, silly Americans! (Image via Wikimedia)
In recent years, synthetic cannabinoids sprayed on herbal matter and marketed as incense under names including Spice and K2 have become widely available. They are sold at head shops, convenience stores, truck stops, and via the Internet. The effects of such concoctions mimic those of marijuana.

The ban was originally scheduled to go into effect on Christmas Eve, but was delayed by legal challenges from retailers. The ban lists five chemicals commonly used in the compounds.

There has been "a rapid and significant increase in abuse of these substances in the United States," the DEA notice said. The agency is acting to avoid "an imminent hazard to public safety," it said.

But just as synthetic cannabinoids mimic the effects of herbal marijuana, the adverse effects reported by a subset of users mimic those of herbal marijuana. Those adverse effects include anxiety, paranoia, rapid heartbeat, and nausea -- all admittedly unpleasant, but not life threatening. No fake weed overdose deaths have been reported.

States have not been waiting for the feds to act against this legal high. At least 18 of them have criminalized synthetic cannabinoids, including Utah, Arizona, and Nebraska in the last week.

Washington, DC
United States

"Bath Salts," Fake Marijuana Banned in Utah

Utah has become the latest state to ban new synthetic drugs. Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed into law Friday HB 23, which bans both synthetic cannabinoids and mephedrone, or "synthetic cocaine." The "emergency" measure went into effect immediately upon being signed by the governor.

No more buzz from Spice or "Bath Salts" in the Beehive State (Image via Wikimedia)
Synthetic cannabinoids are typically marketed as incense under brand names including Spice and K2. They are currently banned in more than a dozen states, with action pending in others. The DEA attempted to implement a nationwide ban as of Christmas Eve, but was blocked by legal moves on the part of retailers' groups until Tuesday, when a federal ban went into effect.

Mephedrone, a derivative of methcathinone, the stimulant substance found in the khat plant, is commonly sold as "bath salts," under names like Ivory Wave. Users report that it has cocaine-like or amphetamine-like effects. It has also been banned in Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana. The DEA has not yet moved against mephedrone.

The Utah law criminalizes 17 synthetic chemicals, all synthetic cannabinoid or methcathinone variants. They now go on the state's list of controlled substances, and their possession, sale, or manufacture becomes a criminal offense.

Gov. Herbert said after signing the bill that he didn't expect that to be the end of it. "Things change," he said. "What we face today is different than 10 years ago, and I expect my grandchildren will face different situations in the future."

Salt Lake City, UT
United States

Synthetic Marijuana Now Banned in Nebraska

Nebraska banned synthetic marijuana February 24, as an emergency measure passed by the legislature and signed a day earlier by Gov. Dave Heineman (R) went into effect.

No legal Spice for you, Cornhuskers! (Image via Wikimedia)
The bill, LB 19, adds a group of synthetic cannabinoid compounds to Schedule I of the state's Controlled Substances Act, and will punish their possession, production, and distribution like marijuana.

"It slams the door on manufacturers," said bill sponsor Sen. Beau McCoy (R), dealing a blow to the state's so far invisible synthetic pot manufacturing industry.

Synthetic cannabinoids mimic the effects of marijuana. The chemicals are typically sprayed on herbs and then packaged and marketed under names like Spice and K2. Such products began appearing in recent years and gained popularity as a legal alternative to pot, but their appearance also excited reflex prohibitionist instincts among police and politicians across the land.

Nebraska joins more than a dozen states that have moved against fake pot. The DEA had moved to ban the substances nationwide as of last Christmas Eve, but that effort had been blocked by organized retailers' groups until the DEA announced that the federal ban had gone into place Tuesday.

Lincoln, NE
United States

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