Much like Frankenstein's monster, synthetic marijuana was created in a lab and resulted in a perversion of its original subject: the effects of THC, the component of marijuana that provides the "high" sensation. Like marijuana, the drug is smoked, though unlike marijuana it comes in small packets usually labeled "not for human consumption" and has names like "Spice," "Black Mamba," "K2," "Fake Marijuana," "Sexy Monkey" and hundreds of others.
The chemicals in synthetic marijuana are also harder to detect than marijuana in drug tests, and the drug is the second most used illicit drug among high school seniors, behind marijuana itself according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. While certain chemical compounds of synthetic marijuana were banned in Colorado in 2011, there are possibly hundreds more anonymous compounds that haven't been identified yet and thus, aren't illegal.
Just being known as "synthetic marijuana" has angered pot activists because, it's effects are nothing like that of marijuana. Synthetic marijuana's non-cannabis herbs sprayed with lab-created chemicals which are said to give users a stronger high than THC can lead to seizures, hallucinations and convulsions as well as profoundly negative psychological effects.
Even John W. Huffman, the scientist who is often credited with creating synthetic marijuana on a federal drug grant to study the effects of drugs on receptors in the brain on lab animals, has recommended that people don't ingest the compounds.
"These things are dangerous -- anybody who uses them is playing Russian roulette," Huffman said to the Los Angeles Times in 2011.
Recently, the Drug Enforcement Administration's Denver division, located in Centennial, has been working to establish synthetic marijuana's link to three deaths in Colorado and a host of hospitalizations across the state. The DEA has said that it estimates the synthetic cannabinoids that are suspected of making Coloradans sick is at least 100 times more potent than naturally-occurring THC, but adds that they're still waiting on the toxicology results.
So what is synthetic marijuana? The Huffington Post spoke with the special agent in charge of the Denver division of the DEA, Barbra Roach, to find out more about the lab-created drug.
What is synthetic marijuana?
It's a synthetic cannabinoid. It's made in a lab. The compounds actually were created -- depending on which one you're talking about -- the earliest one was about 1978, they were usually done for research and I think two of them were done in the United States, one overseas. And then when there was like an open source where you could see what the compound was, then it became more popular. I think around 2009 is when we started seeing it in the United States, as being abused.
What's the difference between synthetic marijuana and traditional, plant-grown marijuana?
Synthetic marijuana is far more powerful, and it just depends on the compounds that are in the synthetic cannabinoid. The compounds itself, it's almost like a DNA, like little piece of DNA, and some of the analogs could be 1 to 800 times more powerful, some are 25 times more powerful, some are 5 times. So it really depends on the compounds that are in the make up of it and the hardest part is, because it's lab-created, they are constantly trying to change the analogs in it and the compounds so it's like an unknown and then it's not technically illegal, at least under federal law.
Then depending on the state you're in, there are 45 states that have some sort of law against synthetic cannabinoids or synthetic drugs, and depending on how good that law is, could depend on how aggressive the state prosecution can be on it. Here in Colorado we actually have a very good law on the books, so it's pretty forward-thinking.
Is there a more technical name for "synthetic marijuana" within the DEA?
It's "synthetic cannabinoids." It's like bath salts -- because it's easier to say "bath salts" or "spice," and those are real super generic words. But cannabinoid is basically cannabis. And some call it "spice" some call it "synthetic marijuana" or "synthetic THC," whatever. It's easier to say, it's easier to think. Bath salts are kind of more in lines with cocaine, so that's a synthetic cathinone. And we had seen those in a few years past, but not a lot of the cannabinoids. Now we're seeing, and obviously this is a big surge over the past year or two, synthetic cannabinoids/synthetic marijuana.
So are synthetic cannabinoids/synthetic marijuana technically even marijuana?
Yes it is. And I know some people get upset about that wording -- but it's because it mimics THC. It's a cannabinoid, but it's hard to say that so they'll call it "spice" or "synthetic marijuana" so it makes it a little easier to differentiate between what's spice and what's bath salts. Just like [bath salts] would be like a synthetic cocaine. It mimics the attributes of THC, that's why it's called that.
So it has a similar compound to marijuana?
Yes, it's just more extreme.
Is there another kind of illicit drug that synthetic cannabinoids are similar to? Say, like LSD?
There are about 12 compounds that we're now seeing, and they're much more alarming -- I mean, all of them are alarming -- but these are very concerning and some of it is like PCP.
Does it always come in packets? How can marijuana users be sure they're not smoking or using synthetic cannabinoids?
The smartest thing to do would be to stay away from anything that says it's a spice or a mamba, which is also a generic term. Anything that says it's a potpourri, "not for human consumption," it all says that, but that's just to try to divert it around the law.
How much more potent is synthetic marijuana than legal marijuana, typically?
It really depends, one package can be completely different from another -- it depends on how it's mixed when they mix it and spray it, because it gets sprayed on a plant material. Is it mixed thickly? Or is it a thinner delusion of it? And then how thickly is it sprayed onto the plant material? So there's a lot of human error there and you really don't know what the compounds are from one to another. You know, you can have two packages from a lab that's doing the spraying, and one has got these compounds and the other one could have something totally different -- so you could have two totally different effects on the human body.
Are you seeing more synthetic compounds from states like Colorado and Washington, which have legalized recreational marijuana, or from states without a form of legal marijuana?
No, last year it was Wyoming. Nebraska's had a couple of incidents, Georgia, and it's kind of all over the map. I don't really think it has anything to do with the legalization [of marijuana] per se, it's just the perception that kids think it's okay -- because it's usually the younger kids that are using it, and I think the average is age 12-29 in the users [of synthetic cannabinoids]. And they're usually male.
What are the costs associated with making synthetic marijuana?
Overall, as far as to make. You can get about a kilo of the raw material -- it depends on who your source is but you know, I think if you're getting it from overseas or wherever it's coming, it's probably about $1,500-$2,500. And then about $1,500 is what it's going to cost you to get a metric ton of the plant material to spray, and then all you need is packaging. So it might cost you just a few dollars to make -- you know, it comes in 3-5 grams that they sell -- and then they're making $30 on it. It's about an average, if you went all the way to the end, it might cost you $5,000 to make it and there's probably a return of about $250,000 if you go all the way down to retail.
What are some of the symptoms of synthetic marijuana?
There can be a euphoria, there's a mental addiction -- wanting that next high, there's vomiting, nausea, accelerated heart rate, blood pressure can shoot up, kidney damage, there's some very disturbing and more aggressive-type reactions that we're seeing. Violence, almost like a freezing of the body that becomes statue-like and everything shuts down, so it's everything. It's physical and it's psychological.
Are there any non-harmful strains of synthetic marijuana?
No. They're all harmful, it's just that some are extremely dangerous and deadly. There are hundreds of different names. The majority [of synthetic cannabinoids] are called either "spice," or "fake weed," "mamba" or "black mamba."
The most important thing though is for people not to use spice -- or synthetic cannabinoids in any form, because you don't know which one you're getting and if you think, 'oh, but this one is 'sexy monkey' and I'm okay with that one,' it's not true. Just because it doesn't say "mamba" doesn't mean it's not a derivative of, because it's a generic name.