Synthetic Marijuana aka “Herbal Incense”: A Legal High That’s Nothing Like Cannabis

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People often call it by brand names: K2, Spice, or A-Bomb. It’s generically referred to as herbal incense, or sometimes, sythentic marijuana or synthetic cannabis. While it is true that the demand for these products arises from the demand for a legal alternative to cannabis, these technically illegal smoking blends (and they are illegal under the Federal Analog Act, even if their specific chemical constituents aren’t prohibited) are very different from cannabis in their effect.

John W. Huffman Image: ABC News

John W. Huffman
Image: ABC News

Let’s start at the beginning. Synthetic cannabis really has its basis in big pharma, with the creation and use of Marinol in the 1980s. (Some herbal incense companies actually used an analog of CP47,497, a synthetic cannabinoid created by Pfizer in the 1980s ). This encouraged other chemists to attempt to create similar synthetic cannabinoids. And one of them, John W. Huffman, was particularly successful. He worked for the National Institute of Drug Abuse, and he and his staff created over 450 synthetic cannabinoid compounds over the years. One of the largest and most popular families of synthetic cannabinoids is essentially named for him (JWH).

Herbal incense sales began slowly and quietly online in the early 2000s, and began increasing rapidly with the 2004 establishment of the now-infamous brand of herbal incense, Spice. By 2009, the herbal incense industry was in a major boom period, and some people were making a lot of money. The packaging and components of herbal incense were incredibly cheap and demanded a massive markup on the legal market, leading plenty of unscrupulous people to start herbal incense companies as a “get rich quick” scheme.

If you are wondering how herbal incense is made, it’s far from standardized and scientific. The research chemicals, which are typically sourced from Chinese factories, are dissolved in a solvent and sprayed onto bulk amounts of dried, smokable plant matter. Some companies use a blend of herbs, others use a single type of plant. This plant material is then weighed out and packaged. Some companies made so much of it at one time that they mixed it up in old cement mixers. Any one package of herbal incense could have far more or less of its active research chemical present than any other of the same brand, even if they were from the same batch of product. Some of these blends were sprayed with flavoring agents, others were left with their “natural” odor. All of them were definitely more dangerous for the average consumer than actual cannabis.

By late 2010, news reports were beginning to trickle in from across the country and around the world, showing that herbal incense posed a far greater threat to society and individual health that the prohibited substance it was meant to replace. As local, state, and federal agencies moved to respond to what they perceived as a new threat (when in reality it was the same old demand, repackaged), popular research chemicals were identified as common and banned. Original generation herbal incense blends typically contained JWH-018. When JWH-018 was banned, manufacturers upgraded to a slightly different compound, JWH-073. And yes, in case you’re wondering, people did get sick and have reactions when new formulas were released under the same brand names without any notice.

JWHWhen JWH-073 and most similar chemicals like HU-210 were banned federally in the initial response to herbal incense, the herbal incense manufacturers simply upgraded to a new family of synthetic cannabinoids, such as UR-144 XLR-11, and AKB48, which were also subsequently banned. Each of these cycles has taken roughly a year, with the incense companies ready to roll out new lines before old chemicals were even banned.

The problem with these synthetic cannabinoids is twofold. The first issue is that there are essentially infinite variations on this chemical theme, meaning that banning specific chemicals (the only form of chemical prohibition that tends to hold up in courts) is ineffective, at best. Once a chemical is banned, only a little tweaking is needed to created a chemically different but effectively similar compound.

The second major issue with synthetic cannabinoids is that they are much better at what they do than naturally occurring THC and other natural-state cannabinoids. These compounds are meant to bind to specific receptors in your brain. Natural state cannabinoids only bind to a portion of available receptors, but synthetic cannabinoids bind to a significantly higher portion than the chemical they are replacing. This means that synthetic cannabinoids not only present a much higher risk of negative side effects and dangerous overdoses, they can also be physically addictive in a way cannabis itself is not.

The demand for herbal incense was always driven by the drug testing industry. The biggest appeal of herbal incense was that it was an intoxicating smoking blend that wouldn’t make you drop dirty; these days, that’s not necessarily the case. Drug tests have since evolved, and most of the common synthetic drugs can be detected, though some of the more obscure chemical variations manage to slip through the cracks. Thus, despite the expansion of prohibition to include a number of compounds considered to be synthetic cannabinoids, some blends of herbal incense are still being marketed for sale as legal (and not detectable by traditional screening).

Synthetic cannabis also achieved its strongest toehold, tellingly, in states with the most vehement anti-cannabis policies. Among the most affected are Alabama and Florida, though issues with these smoking blends exist globally at this point. No studies have been done on the more addictive qualities of synthetic cannabinoids, but searching online yields many, many posts by those desperate to find a new source, another fix, or worse, some treatment that will be effective for lingering psychological effects many months later.

Terrifyingly, a significant portion of the demand for herbal incense (and its stimulant cousins, bath salts) comes from people actively involved in the United States armed services. Conversations with insiders at one of the biggest international synthetic drug retailers revealed that one of the most common complaints they deal with is the fact that they do not ship to APOs (offshore military addresses for active service people). Although the individual branches of the military have officially stated they do not condone synthetic drug abuse, very little is being done to cull synthetic drug users from the ranks or prevent them from joining the armed forces. Standard drug tests do not show synthetic abuse; only specialized tests can detect synthetic cannabinoids, making them an easy way for some people to slip under the drug-testing radar.

Although prohibiting these research chemicals has done nothing except force manufacturers to use less well-known and less-tested alternative chemical compounds, ignoring them isn’t helping either. The only way for the government to effectively combat the demand for and supply of herbal incense is to legalize cannabis. When natural-state cannabis is legal for all adults to use, demand for synthetic versions fueled by fear of drug tests will drop precipitously.

Until that time, the profit margin possible in herbal incense production will remain high enough (as prices of incense rival or exceed those of cannabis in states with legalized markets) to ensure that the flow of “Spice” will never stop.