Monday, October 11, 2010
The New Cannabinoids
Army fears influx of synthetic marijuana
It’s a common rumor: Spice, as the new synthetic cannabis-like products are usually called, will get you high--but will allow you to pass a drug urinalysis. And for this reason, rumor has it, Spice is becoming very popular in exactly the places it might be least welcomed: Police stations, fire departments—and army bases.
What the hell is this stuff?
Little is known about spice and other synthetic twists on basic cannabinoid molecules. We do know that the near-cannabis compounds are hard to detect, and even harder to legislate against without closing down avenues of legitimate research. It appears evident that a number of cannabinoid compounds are in circulation, and the precise nature of any given dose is difficult to determine. Much like trying the brown acid, or the joint laced with PCP, the effects vary widely. There are numerous anecdotal reports that spice and its cousins are extremely dose dependent.
The best coverage of Spice, K2, and similar “legal highs” has been generated by science bloggers—especially David Kroll at Terra Sigillata, DrugMonkey at DrugMonkey blog, and Dr. Leigh at Neurodynamics. Readers are advised to consult these links for the most comprehensive coverage of this emerging drug issue.
David Kroll aptly summarized what we know about the "fake weed."
"Synthetic marijuana, marketed as K2 or spice, is an herbal substance sold as an incense or smoking material that remains legal in much of the United States but is being increasingly banned at the state and local levels. The products contain one or more synthetic compounds that behave similarly to the primary psychoactive constituent of marijuana, delta nine tetrahydrocannabinol or THC.”
Kroll writes that JWH–018 is "one of over 100 indoles, pyrroles, and indenes synthesized by the Huffman laboratory to develop cannabimimetics, drugs that mimic the effect of cannabinoids such as THC.”
Furthermore: “The compound most commonly found in these products is a chemical first synthesized by the well-known Clemson University organic chemist, Prof. John W Huffman: the eponymous JW H–018. Another compound, found in spice products sold in Germany, is an analog of CP-47, 497, a cannabinoid developed by Pfizer over 20 years ago."
The cannabimimetics are back.
Unfortunately, the chemical compositions vary, as do the effects, all of which is unpleasantly reminiscent of PCP problems in the past. To gain a better perspective on the matter, I spoke with Joe Gould, a staff writer for the Army Times who has been covering the issue of Spice use in the Armed Forces. Gould has written extensively on the case of Spc. Bryan Roudebush, who attacked his girlfriend in Hawaii while under the influence of Spice. Roudebush had been home from an Iraq deployment for a year when the incident occurred. Two earlier experiences with spice had produced marijuana-like effects. But for Roudebush, the third time was not the charm: He beat his girlfriend and tried to throw her out a window while experiencing what he described as a trance-like state.
“What we were told by the folks at the Army Criminal Investigation Lab is that it started showing up on bases,” said Gould, “and the investigators on the bases were baffled, and the crime lab wasn’t sure what it was at first.”
What investigators discovered was “all that really defines a synthetic cannabinoid is that it activates cannabinoid receptors. We know what THC does. But the chemical composition is not THC. There are all these different strains. Some of the state laws we’ve been seeing, they’re targeting specific varieties of this stuff, but there are other varieties that the law doesn’t know about yet. So I think what the Army has done, intentionally or not, it has sort of skirted this whole question by just calling it all Spice.”
As for the Roudebush case, Gould said: “The first two times he tried it, it was very much like pot. And then the third time, by his and his girlfriend’s description, he goes into a violent trance. They think it was just a different variety. It’s kind of a mystery. What was in that batch? Why did it affect him the way it did? It just goes to how little is known about the drug. You don’t know from one batch to another.”
The U.S. Army currently has no specific testing program in place for Spice. Can you pass a drug test on Spice? “That’s what we heard,” Gould told me. “A researcher from NIH told us exactly that—they believe that the reason it’s popular, the reason they’ve seen officials using it, is because it can’t be tested for.” Despite this, Gould said he knew of “at least nine Commands that have individually passed regulations to target Spice.”
Gould downplayed any talk of an epidemic of usage, and made clear that his research shows that Spice usage is not rampant. “It’s not entirely clear how many soldiers are using Spice. The Army’s not really tracking the use of Spice. Each of these commands passed these regulations either because they saw a problem, or because they were trying to get out in front of what could potentially be a problem.”
Too far out in front for Phillip Cave, a Virginia attorney who has represented military personnel in cases involving Spice. Gould quotes Cave calling the whole thing a “witch hunt,” noting that alcohol is freely available on base, and that researchers do not yet knew whether Spice and its analogs are unsafe or addictive—and they are illegal in only a handful of states at present. Cave also objects to the fact that most cases have been resolved by an Article 15 discharge from service.
“The European Union study says there is the potential for abuse,” said Gould. “How bad it gets, we won’t know until we see more studies.”
Hand-in-hand with restrictions on Spice have come crackdowns on the use of Salvia, a plant responsible for brief but intense bouts of hallucinogenic effects. “The state laws have tended to tackle the two at once,” according to Gould. “Like the state legislatures, the Army has a patchwork of bans they’re putting out there, and there also hitting Salvia. But what I was told by the folks at the lab was that they’re not seeing it in the same kinds of numbers. It’s been sporadic at best.”