Synthetic alternatives to marijuana have flooded the market over the last decade.
The creations, often marketed as “Spice,” “K2,” and “Mr. Smiley,” typically consist of a synthetic cannabinoid sprayed onto a potpourri-like substance. The cannabinoid binds to the same receptors in the brain as THC - the psychoactive component in marijuana - does and voila – users have a way to get high without worrying about drug possession charges or failed drug tests.
The problem, though, is these synthetic cannabinoids are much more dangerous than their natural counterpart. Countless reports have surfaced in recent years (like here, here, here, and here) attributing deaths and hospitalizations to the synthetic compounds -- and they’re only getting more dangerous.
Each time the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) bans a known synthetic cannabinoid, black market chemists immediately start concocting a new one.
Take the compound JWH-018, for example. In 2010, the DEA discovered JWH-018 was the main component in most Spice blends sold in the U.S. and banned it immediately. Just weeks later, blends were being sold with new synthetic compounds like AM-694, and JWH-203.
It’s an endless game of cat and mouse between the DEA and underground chemists that, if history is any indication, the DEA has no chance of winning. The policy only leads to the creation of new synthetic cannabinoids even more dangerous and less tested than their recently-banned counterparts.
The latest victim of these compounds is Connor Eckhardt, a 19-year-old from Los Angeles.
As The Daily Pilot reports, Eckhardt was declared brain dead just hours after smoking synthetic marijuana with friends. Doctors at Hoag Hospital say the drug caused either his heart to stop beating or his lungs to stop breathing, and his brain was fatally deprived of oxygen.
"Connor did not want to die," his mother lamented. "Connor very much wanted to live. He had everything to live for."
Connor’s family has vowed to raise awareness about synthetic marijuana in the wake of his death.
Mark Kleiman, leader of Washington state’s marijuana legalization program, spoke to Abby Haglage at The Daily Beast last year about the problem of synthetic marijuana and the policies that led to its creation.
“It’s nothing like marijuana,” he said. “People have no experience with these chemicals. When you buy it may say… plant fertilizer...the consumer is completely in the dark.”
He told Haglage that he understand why people seek out the drugs.
“If you’re a truck driver, you could lose your license if you test positive for drugs. What do you do if you want to get stoned? You use synthetic cannabinoids,” he says.
Kleiman says the root cause of the synthetic marijuana market is clear: marijuana prohibition. If cannabis were legal – or at least decriminalized – users would have no reason to turn to dangerous alternatives.
“This is a pure side effect of prohibition,” Kleiman says. “It may not be a good enough reason for getting rid of it, but it’s certainly a reason.”