No matter the name—and there are many—synthetic cannabinoids, substances meant to mimic the effects of marijuana on the brain, rarely produce the desired effect. Instead, the ever-changing mix of potent chemicals found in "replacement" weed products can often lead to feelings of jittery anxiety, nausea, confusion, and in some cases, more serious side effects such as seizures, catatonia, and epilepsy. Sold in shiny foil packets, they can be purchased in smoke shops and corner stores, usually for about $5.
Recently, synthetic cannabinoids, known colloquially as “synthetic marijuana” or by brand names like K2, Spice, or Spike, have been the subject of a media frenzy, and a scourge to public officials in cities where they have become popular, cheap, dubiously legal substitutes for pot. Surging abuse numbers and high-profile overdoses have led both state and federal governments to outlaw certain strains of synthetic cannabinoids––some are even federally classified alongside heroin and actual marijuana. But manufacturers regularly dodge bans by reproducing slight variants quickly enough so that regulators can't keep up, leading to what news reports suggest has become an increasing epidemic.
So are synthetic weed replacements worth all the hype?
For some observers, that is the wrong question to ask. Synthetic cannabinoids, like other new psychoactive drugs, pose a unique threat to both users and law enforcement alike. Thanks to their impermanent chemical makeup, and ever-expanding iterations, synthetic cannabinoids go largely unregulated, creating a public health risk for casual users and disenfranchised populations, who turn to the drugs to avoid brushes with the law or pass drug tests. Yet despite the dangers associated with synthetic cannabinoids, marijuana activists and drug policy groups say the current panic and race-to-prohibition mindset only leads to a misinformed public, more varieties of the drug to choose from, and an all-around antiquated, frenetic approach to solving the problem—more akin to drug enforcement strategies of the 1930s and 40s.
"It's like Reefer Madness all over again," says Joseph Palamar, a drug researcher and assistant professor of population health at New York University's Langone Medical Center. "When you look at the claims put forth by the feds back then, it's the same type of thing. The terminology they're using makes it seem like if you use this, this is what will happen––it's overly definitive talk," Palamar told ATTN:.
In New York, where synthetic cannabinoid use seems particularly high, both media reports and officials' efforts to combat the drug's presence have taken on an alarmist tone, though perhaps for good reason. According to NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene estimates, the number of synthetic cannabinoid-related emergency department visits increased by 220 percent in the first six months of 2014, and current police department reports peg the number of medical emergencies at the city's major trauma center, Bellevue Hospital, at more than 100 each month, CNN reported this month. For at least one segment of the homeless population in Central Brooklyn, VICE's Allie Conti reported last month, rampant use of synthetic cannabinoid has led to paramedics spending shifts shuttling the same people from a nearby homeless shelter to the area's hospital, and back again.
Still, activists' concerns have been borne out in police press conferences and local media reports. Earlier this month at a news conference on the drug, New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton called synthetic cannabinoids "weaponized marijuana," telling reporters that users were delivered superhuman strength and imperviousness to pain. Bratton also showed what was initially billed as video footage of a "K2" user, in which a bloodied, naked man punches straight through a wooden fence. As the Gothamist later reported, the clip was pulled from a 12-year-old segment of a COPS episode shot in Des Moines, Iowa, featuring a raving man allegedly on PCP.
But even with the revelation, local news reports picked up on the commissioner's language, with one ABC station claiming that the drug causes users to "become impervious to pain" and is known to cause "extreme strength," characteristics largely exaggerated even for PCP users.
The NYPD later said that the videos were meant to display "excited delirium syndrome state," which can be caused by "cocaine, PCP, LSD," as well as synthetic cannabinoids.
"[T]hat video was to demonstrate what our officers may encounter," Police Chief of Patrol Carlos Gomez told Reuters.
Still, policy advocates said that hyperbolic claims and misattributed scare tactics can lead to harmful cultural assumptions.
"We have a lot of evidence about what happens when you lie to people about the impact and effects of a drug," Gabriel Sayegh, managing director of policy and campaigns at the Drug Policy Alliance told BuzzFeed News. "That's why nobody believe[s] the federal government when they say marijuana is just as dangerous as heroin."
Moreover, according to Palamar, scare tactics could be the wrong approach for disenfranchised populations, for whom new psychoactive drugs are the only option. "Tens of thousands of people have used [synthetic cannabinoids] and I doubt very many of them were impervious to pain, or were given superhuman strength," said Palamar. "We need public health messages out there... these scare tactics, I don't think they're going to work if you're poor or a person of color and you want to smoke weed but you're worried about getting arrested or beating a drug test."
Stefanie Jones, nightlife community engagement manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, was quick to acknowledge the real dangers associated with synthetic cannabinoids, but, she said, the hysteria currently shrouding the drug's public reputation is the result of a misguided approach to policing both synthetic and non-synthetic forms of cannabinoids.
According to Jones, prohibiting synthetic weed "is just going to drive creation of new substances. The reason we have these in the first place is that these people really just wanted to smoke marijuana, but that's not available, it's expensive, it shows up on drug tests––and all of those things are not true for synthetic cannabinoids."
Jones pointed to other countries for guidance in implementing successful regulations for synthetic cannabinoids, and suggested replacing the War on Drugspolicing ethos with one emphasizing compassionate response models for dealing with drug users on a bad trip, and non-judgemental drug education programs, especially for vulnerable populations. In New Zealand, for example, lawmakersimposed a statute requiring producers of synthetic cannabinoids to vet their drug's safety for human consumption before it can be sold on the market.
According to Palamar, however, the approach to policing new forms of drugs like synthetic cannabinoids is unlikely to change until existing models, which currently group marijuana, heroin, and LSD in the same classification, are reexamined.
"It's sad that the 'safe choice' seems to be synthetic marijuana," Palamar said. "That dangerous, garbagey drug should not be the safer choice over marijuana, for which the most dangerous outcome of use is arrest."
This article was published in collaboration with the Drug Policy Alliance. To learn more about these issues, visit www.drugpolicy.org.