Synthetic marijuana, also known as synthetic pot or synthetic cannabis, is the name given to a group of products made from a combination of natural plant material and any one of a number of different chemicals called synthetic cannabinoids. When they enter your brain, these chemicals produce an effect that closely mimics the effects of the natural cannabinoid in marijuana called tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. In 2012, the U.S. government banned the production, sale and/or possession of the cannabinoids found in the most widely distributed forms of synthetic marijuana, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency followed up this new legislation with a nationwide raid on distributors of these products.
Synthetic Marijuana Basics
Synthetic marijuana was first invented in 1995 at Clemson University, where a professor studying the ways that cannabinoids affect the brain created a chemical compound called JWH-018. Like all other synthetic cannabinoids created thereafter, this compound attaches to the same chemical receptors activated by naturally occurring THC and creates marijuana-like drug effects. In addition to JWH-018, manmade cannabinoids commonly found in synthetic marijuana products include substances called cannabicyclohexanol, JWH-073, JWH-200, HU210, AM694 and a compound called CP-47, 497. Products that contain these ingredients go by names that include K2, Spice, Genie, Skunk, Yucatan Fire, Mr. Nice Guy and Moon Rocks. Popular outlets for these products include Internet retailers, gas stations or convenience stores, and “head shops” that sell drug-related paraphernalia.
While synthetic cannabinoids activate the same receptors in your brain as THC, in some cases they attach to these receptors much more tenaciously than THC, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Prolonged activation of these receptors translates into increased drug potency, and compounds such as AM694 and HU210 produce effects that are roughly 500 to 600 times stronger than equivalent amounts of THC. Potential consequences of this unusual potency include effects-such as paranoia, hallucinations, and intense anxiety-that closely mimic the symptoms of a psychotic episode.
Synthetic cannabinoids also put increased stress on your cardiovascular system and can trigger serious and possibly fatal problems that include abnormally low blood flow to your heart, dangerously high blood pressure, dangerously high heart rate and the onset of a heart attack. A pregnant woman who uses synthetic marijuana exposes her fetus to increased risks of abnormal brain development, especially in critical stages of early pregnancy. Emergency room visits related to use of synthetic marijuana products have increased significantly since 2009.
As of September 2012, 41 U.S. state legislatures have banned the production, sale and/or possession of known synthetic cannabinoids. States without this type of ban include Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. Three of these nine states, New York, Oregon and Washington, have bans put in place by a statewide board of health or a statewide pharmacy board. On July 10, 2012, the federal government enacted a nationwide ban in legislation known as the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012. In addition to the known active ingredients in synthetic marijuana products, this legislation bans the production, sale and/or possession of certain synthetic hallucinogens and a group of synthetic stimulants known collectively (and misleadingly) as “bath salts.”
Two weeks after the federal ban on synthetic marijuana went into effect, the DEA organized and executed Operation Log-Jam, a nationwide crackdown on known distributors of products that contain synthetic cannabinoids. In coordination with local and state police, agents conducting this operation confiscated $36 million, as well as almost 5 million individual synthetic marijuana packages meant for sale to retail consumers.
Problems of Enforcement
There are several potential problems related to the enforcement of federal and state bans on synthetic marijuana. First, manufacturers of these products can technically evade these bans by inventing new synthetic compounds that achieve the same basic effects as outlawed substances, while using new chemical structures that have not been banned. Also, because of the newness of the compounds used in synthetic marijuana, federal, state and local enforcement agencies have had very little time to train drug-detecting dogs how to identify these substances. In addition, in states without a ban on synthetic cannabinoids, local and state law enforcement officers have no independent authority to regulate the production, sale or possession of products that contain these compounds. Instead, they must rely on the efforts of federal law enforcement agencies, which have limited resources and manpower to devote on an ongoing basis.
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