One of the newest drugs on the nation's target list, a synthetic cannabinoid that until recently was sold legally as “herbal incense” —but was actually smoked like tobacco—has set off a debate between researchers and law enforcement over how dangerous it really is.
It has also set off a “cat and mouse” game over how the product is sold.
On March 1, three variants of a substance called JWH were determined to be a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substance Act by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
That puts JWH in the same category as marijuana and heroin. According to the Act, Schedule 1 drugs are those that serve no medical purpose and have a high potential for abuse. Anyone caught selling or smoking these versions of JWH faces similar charges that their state would give them for possession or sale of marijuana.
Those charges would be even more severe in California. On Oct 2, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill providing fines of up to $1,000 and a six-month jail term for anyone convicted of selling synthetic cannabinoids in the state.
Compare that to the state's marijuana laws, where the sale of less than 28 ounces will carry no jail time and a maximum fine of $100.
But there's one big catch in the feds' clampdown.
There are more than 400 versions of JWH. So, even as companies stop selling products containing the now-banned JWH-018, JWH- 073, and JWH- 200, other products offering the same “results” are expected to replace them.
DEA spokesman Rusty Payne conceded the point, saying the agency faced a “cat and mouse game” in its efforts to take JWH off the shelves.
JWH products are distributed under brand names like Sweet Lucy, K2, Spice, Sence, Smoke, Skunk and Zohai by a number of companies that appear to be doing most of their business online.
The Crime Report, after a number of tries, found an employee of Sweet Lucy by contacting a company web page advertising for 'sales' help. But the employee refused to provide any details about his firm—including the location of the distribution company, how they acquired their product, and even his name, saying he did not want his family to know where he worked.
The rep said his company had complied with the DEA ban, but he hinted the ban would have little effect on sales of JWH products.
“There will always be something else to use,” he said.
The DEA's decision was based in part on data collected by the American Association of Poison Control Centers, which reported in May that synthetic marijuana products have spurred more than 4,500 calls to poison centers around the country since 2010.
“Emergency room physicians report that individuals [who] use these types of products experience serious side effects which include convulsions, anxiety attacks, dangerously elevated heart rates, increased blood pressure, vomiting, and disorientation,” the association said in its press release.
Jeff Lapoint, a physician who works at New York City's Poison Control Center told The Crime Report that he began noticing JWH emergencies last year. The first case to come into his center involved a man was sweating and exhibited extremely high blood pressure, but ultimately made a full recovery.
Nevertheless, Lapoint said the lack of research on JWH made it difficult to draw any conclusions about its dangers.
“This isn't in any toxicology books,” he said.
Researchers make similar arguments.
“There's not enough research to say it's good or bad,” claims Jahan Marcu, a graduate student at Temple University who was studying the effect of JWH and other synthetic cannabinoids on rats until March, when the DEA clampdown forced him to abandon his research on the three banned JWH variants.
“Some of these compounds have been shown to have medical uses,” Marcu added, noting that the drug's inventor, John W. Huffman, an American organic chemist now retired from Clemson University, created it for medical purposes.
A cannabinoid stimulates the receptors in the brain that regulates appetite, sleeping patterns, and sex drive. Marijuana is an example of a natural cannabinoid. JWH mimics the chemical make-up of THC, the active element in marijuana.
The effects of smoking JWH are said to be like smoking marijuana.
But JWH users scoff at comparisons with addictive drugs.
“I wish I would hallucinate from smoking JWH,” says Alec Courtney, a 21-year-old Brooklyn, NY resident, who has used both pot and the synthetic version.
“This isn't LSD; it's just a weak version of weed.”
Courtney says he uses JWH, which he purchases regularly at a neighborhood store, only because it is cheaper than weed. A gram of weed in New York City costs about $20. A gram of JWH is sold for $10.
In its purest form, JWH is a white powder which is manually sprayed onto any burnable organic matter. Inconsistencies or mistakes in applying the spray can mean result in wide variations of potency in bags sold in stores, says Lapoint, who notes that this may be one reason some people end up in emergency rooms after smoking it.
“You don't know how to regulate your own dose,” Lapoint explained.
He also pointed out that, unlike JWH users, people who have smoked marijuana almost never go to the emergency room or call the poison control center.
Most smoke shops and “head shops” are stocked with these products and can be bought with proof that the buyer is over 18. In the press release reporting on the emergency calls data, the Association of Poison Control Centers said that some of the products were also sold at gas stations.
While the March DEA ban may have a limited impact on sales, it has put a damper on legitimate medical research.
“It's very hard to work when your tools are constantly being banned,” complained Marcu, who said his views represented his own personal opinion.
In one of Marcu's studies with JWH, he found that JWH-133 was shown to cure cocaine addiction in animals..
And perhaps other types of addictions as well.
Courtney, a recovering alcoholic, claims that when he smokes JWH, “I don't have a desire to drink.”
Adds Courtney: “I think it could be used to help alcoholics.”
The DEA so far appears to have ignored such claims. Instead it is hoping to address the “cat and mouse” game with a total ban that will take all varieties of JWH off the market, by resorting to the federal Analogue Statute.
The statute, a subsection of the Controlled Substances Act, enables the feds to criminalize any substance whose chemical structure is substantially similar to the chemical structure of a schedule I or II controlled substance.
So far, however, they have not been able to establish an analogue.
In order to establish one, enough research has to be done on all 400-plus variants of JWH that will establish they all mimic THC.
But there is no indication that such comprehensive research has been launched.
Marcu, who has analyzed the contents of products containing JWH, said that these items are “chock full of potent chemicals” that are not JWH, but other stimulants. He argues that the chemical cocktail resulting from the mixture is another factor in creating the effects that make people call poison control centers.
The DEA clampdown comes in the wake of growing concerns about the use and abuse of synthetic and prescription drugs nationwide. A recent analysis of government data conducted by the Los Angeles Times, found that drug overdoses now outnumber traffic fatalities in the United States.
Such stories have galvanized Congress into action. The House Judiciary Committee is shortly to begin its markup of the proposed Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011 (HR 1254), which would dramatically expand the federal government's powers to stop synthetics trafficking.
Under HR 1254, more than two dozen chemical compounds found in synthetic drugs would be added to Schedule 1, with mandatory minimum penalties of 20 years to life for distribution, import or manufacturing. Individuals convicted of simple possession could face up to a year in jail.
Opponents of the bill charge this will complicate matters for states that have enacted measures to address the increase in synthetic drug use among young people. As many as 30 states have done so.
“The harsh disparity [between marijuana and synthetics] is unwarranted,” Grant Smith, a member of the Drug Policy Alliance (a leading NGO opposing current federal drug policies) told The Crime Report.
Smith says the promised crackdown will not stop people from using synthetic drugs.
“Prohibiting substances doesn't work,” he said. “We should be regulating.”
In the draft of a letter seeking additional support for its campaign against the bill, the Drug Policy Alliance also warned that the measure “could undermine efforts by state lawmakers pursuing unique and innovative policies” to deal with young people's abuse of synthetics.
“Youth would also be better served by a pro-active effort by Congress to fund studies and evaluations that give the public, lawmakers and health authorities a better understanding of the health implications of synthetic drugs,” the letter said.
However, the bill has received support from law enforcement groups such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The issue is beginning to resemble the long impasse between medical researchers and law enforcement over the medical use of marijuana.
Although the feds still question marijuana's medical benefits, a growing number of states have allowed its use for those purposes; and decriminalization of small amounts of pot has become acceptable in many jurisdictions.
That suggests the ultimate outcome of the JWH debate may depend more on politics than science.
Eric Jankiewicz is the Fall news intern for The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.