The following is a summary about the inconsistency amongst different synthetic marijuana products. Synthetic marijuana products are mislabeled from the very start. Marketing these products as an alternative to marijuana is false in of itself, as these products have little or nothing to do with real cannabis.
In addition to the false marketing these products use, there is little consistency amongst the dosage of the actual chemicals used to produce the “high” itself. Even samples amongst the same brands and sub brands have huge variances of these dosages.
In late 2009 sheriff’s offices began getting reports from high school resource officers about kids buying K2 incense and smoking it. Rather than confiscate the material or try to close down the shops selling it, Morris asked undercover officers to go in and buy more. Like Upchurch when he was first setting up shop, Morris analyzed the chemicals appearing in popular brands. (Upchurch isn’t a chemist; he’s a former Web designer, but he paid a private chemical lab to help figure out his initial recipes.) In his own lab, Morris identified three probable ingredients in most blends—JWH-018, JWH-073, and HU-210—and proposed that Kansas ban them. In March 2010 the state made all three illegal. Other states followed suit. Louisiana has even banned the use of the plant damiana, a central American shrub that smells like chamomile and looks a little like pot. The current DEA ban covers five cannabinoids as well as any “analogues,” small manipulations of molecular structures that essentially work the same as the original molecule.
Upchurch orders many of his “special additives” from China, and both he and Morris use the international export directory Alibaba.com to see what’s available. Search “buy JWH” and you’ll find at least 3,800 Chinese labs standing by for custom orders. Hubei Prosperity Galaxy Chemical, for example, offers photos of its operation in Hubei on mainland China, with rows of workers in white suits. Hubei notes on its website that it can ship 5,000 kilograms of JWH-019 per month. (The company declined to comment.) One hundred kilograms is enough to make the equivalent of about 1 million joints of marijuana. Such Web traffic appears to be completely unregulated. On a recent day, Morris spotted one site that had mislabeled an ultrastrong hallucinogen as a low-dose cannabinoid.
For incense smokers, product mislabeling and reformulation can be dangerous. “All of these things act on various parts of your brain called receptor sites,” Morris says, describing the biochemistry that helps regulate normal states of consciousness. Synthetic cannabinoids target the CB1 and CB2 receptors, which either cause hallucinations in the first instance or can alleviate nausea and instill calm in the second. “Think of it as a lock-and-key system,” he says. “The receptor site is the lock and the drug is the key. As the key goes into the lock, it sort of opens up the psychoactive properties of the receptor site.”
After testing more than 100 packets from different suppliers, Morris has noticed a disturbing trend: There is no trend. The type and quantity of mind-altering agents in many blends can vary not only between brands but also between packets of the same stuff. He’s found processors using different synthetic cannabinoids anywhere from two to more than 500 times stronger than THC. Some target the CB1, others the CB2. Many manufacturers are mixing multiple chemicals together to create signature blends, forging new combinations.
Synthetic Marijuana side effects and tragedies have risen along with profits. The American Association of Poison Control Centers logged just 14 calls about the harmful effects of incense in 2009. That number jumped to 2,874 in 2010. By the end of May 2011, it had fielded an additional 2,324, on pace to double last year’s numbers. Hospitals have reported that smoking incense can cause agitation, racing heartbeat, vomiting, intense hallucinations, and seizures. “Marijuana can make you calm and relaxed, but this seems to cause anxiety,” says Dr. Anthony J. Scalzo, medical director of Missouri Poison Control, who spotted the first outbreak of emergency room visits in late 2009. “People think that if you can buy it legally, it must be safe. But they don’t know what they are dealing with,” he says. Many states have taken the initiative to ban synthetic marijuana.