Barely Legal

The Volatile Chemistry of Synthetic Drugs

by Camera Ford

Illustration by Cecilia Berriz

published September 25, 2015

When the video starts, the woman is already on the ground. She is lying on her stomach next to the open front door of her car, howling and clawing at creatures only she can see. She makes eye contact with the camera and screams, and it is only when the person filming the encounter shifts the camera slightly that you can see lines of cars stopped in the background—she is in the middle of a 3-lane highway. People peer out at her from their vehicles, equally curious and disturbed. When police officers arrive to escort the woman off the road, she fights back with surprising strength—it takes three officers to restrain her. Why? 




In late 2007, the shipments of ‘herbal incense’ started arriving at a US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) hub in Wilmington, Ohio. They were tested for illicit substances, as required by protocol, and when they turned up negative were sent on their way. As more of the strange shipments began arriving in the US, border patrol officers and CBP scientists began to suspect that something was wrong. More extensive testing revealed that the ‘incense’ was coated in a mix of chemicals that reproduced the effects of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Before long, the CBP had discovered and banned the first chemical compounds that would become known as synthetic cannabinoids. But the imports couldn’t be stopped—the border patrol labs were inundated with mystery compounds to analyze, classify, and document, and they couldn’t keep up with the pace of the chemical modifications to the arriving substances. And so, synthetic cannabis entered the US market en masse. 

Government and law enforcement officials at all levels have become aware of the explosive scale—and health costs—of the synthetic drug market. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officers at customs hubs as spread out as Houston, Chicago, and even Louisville have seized incoming shipments of synthetic cannabis and other synthetic drugs. Shipments have been listed as products ranging from printer ink to cleaning products. When they are seized, they are typically analyzed and identified at a nearby federal forensics lab so that the active chemicals can be added to a list of banned compounds. 

But this process can take up to a year. In the mean time, the volatile drug known as “synthetic cannabis” or “synthetic marijuana” has been creeping into corner stores, gas stations, and online marketplaces. You can find it in small, shiny packets emblazoned with neon patterns and cartoon characters, next to the Slim Jims or perhaps the sticks of gum. Commonly known on the street by brand names including “K2,” “Spice,” and “Spike,” it is smoked or ingested much like marijuana. The mix of plant matter looks something like potpourri, with many blends strongly resembling crushed marijuana leaves. The difference is that Spice has no chemical or biological relation whatsoever to the cannabis plant.

In 2014, the governor of New Hampshire declared a state of emergency after a wave of deaths related to Spice. In July 2015, The New York Times chronicled the Spice (or in this case, “Spike”) economy that has been rampant in parts of Syracuse, New York. Although details vary from place to place, the mechanics of the problem are similar across the country. Suburban teenagers and homeless urbanites alike partake in synthetic cannabinoids, some addicts and some not. There, branded baggies of Spice typically sell for ten dollars per 5 grams, which is enough for about 20 joints. Cheaper—and usually more dangerous—options include loose joints or handfuls of the drug, which sell for a dollar or two; and homemade knock-offs sold by local dealers who offer an inexpensive but incredibly volatile alternative. Toxicologists, medics, and emergency room workers who have dealt with Spice overdose patients have said that contrary to the mellow, spacey behavior usually associated with heavy marijuana use, people high or overdosed on Spice act as though they are on amphetamines—elevated heart rate, high blood pressure, and paranoia. Sometimes, it takes multiple people to calm patients enough to keep them in the hospital for the duration of their symptoms.  




When you smoke marijuana, you are allowing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, into your system. THC molecules travel through your bloodstream until they attach to a protein receptor called CB1. CB1 receptors are in the parts of your brain that control appetite, short-term memory, and spatial awareness. Normally, your CB1 receptors are triggered by a cannabinoid named anandamide. Anandamide is a neurotransmitter—a chemical that allows the neurons in your brain to communicate with one another—that is made in your body and latches on to the receptors in your brain. But when you smoke, your receptors are overloaded by the addition of THC. You feel happy, and your sense of time warps. This is because THC elevates the levels of dopamine molecules in your body, which are usually released in response to things that elevate mood—food and sex, for example—and are also responsible for regulating your sense of time. You get hungry, in part because the THC activates the receptors in your brain that regulate appetite. Although not much is known about the long-term effects of marijuana use, THC can have negative bodily effects, at least in the short-term—poor impulse control, a speeding heart rate, short-term memory loss, and mild anxiety or paranoia, among others. 

Spice is popular among people looking for a legal high, because it induces physical responses similar to marijuana. But despite Spice users experiencing a similar high to the one they get from weed, the drug’s actual effects on your body are different because Spice doesn’t contain THC. It consists of a mix of chemicals called synthetic cannabinoids that is sprayed onto miscellaneous dried herbs. The herbs act as a vessel for the synthetic cannabinoids, which mimic the behavior of THC you find in marijuana and the cannabinoids naturally found in your body. In essence, Spice is a manufactured synthetic drug meant to imitate the effects of the marijuana plant. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the only thing scientists actually know about how synthetic cannabinoids work is that they bind to the same CB1 receptors as THC, but bind much more strongly. This likely induces more unpredictable effects than marijuana. For the woman on the highway, the effects were overwhelming. 

There are a huge number of synthetic cannabinoids that can be used to make Spice, but one of the first was a compound called JWH-018. JWH-018 is an analgesic, or painkilling, chemical that binds to CB1 receptors and produces physiological effects similar to THC. There are other chemicals in the JWH family—as well as completely separate chemical families—which have been used in the production of synthetic cannabis at various times. Any of them can be up to 100 times more potent than the chemicals found in marijuana.  

Similarly, synthetic cathinones, the compounds found in the popular drug known as bath salts, mimic the chemical effects of amphetamines and MDMA. They are stimulants, so the high they produce is one of heightened activity: euphoria, increased energy and sex drive, hallucinations, paranoia. Not much is known about how the compounds interact with the brain, but according to the NIDA they seem to release rushes of the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These chemicals already exist in your body, but cathinones prompt extremely high levels, clocking in at ten times more potent than cocaine. 

One of the dangerous things about synthetic drugs is that there is no regulation of the production process. In order to stay one step ahead of US substance abuse laws, the labs that manufacture the drugs constantly alter some of the active chemical compounds. When the DEA bans one compound, new (and technically legal) batches of Spice or bath salts can be made with a just a slight tweak to that compound’s chemical structure. The product escapes legal scrutiny, but the buyers typically know nothing about the new compound’s effects or potency, or even that the drug’s composition has changed. Even experienced users will occasionally hit a batch that might send them to the hospital with severe seizures and hallucinations, paranoia, and even heart attacks. 




The last five years have been peppered with changes to marijuana usage and possession laws in the United States. Virginia, Georgia, Wyoming, and Florida are among a number of states that now allow medical marijuana as a treatment or pain reducer for conditions like severe epilepsy and other seizure disorders, terminal cancer, and Parkinson’s disease. In 2014, Colorado legalized and began regulating the sale of marijuana statewide for recreational and medical use. In Rhode Island, possession of up to one ounce is considered a civil violation and carries a fine of up to $150 but with no jail time and no criminal record. Students on college campuses nationwide smoke with little fear of being caught by campus security. But still, the presence of a legal alternative to marijuana—and the fact that Spice cannot be detected by drug tests—is likely enticing for potential users.  

Increasing tolerance of marijuana in public opinion might also have raised acceptance of synthetic variants. According to “Monitoring the Future,” an annual survey of US drug use carried out by the University of Michigan, there is a strong but misguided perception among high-schoolers that synthetic cannabis is relatively safe to use. This feeling is probably bolstered by the fact that the drug is legal to sell and can be easily purchased from websites like Craigslist or and at places like gas stations and head shops. Typically, the brightly-decorated packages will be advertised as “natural,” or as a household product like incense with a warning of “not fit for human consumption.” These phrases act both as legal loopholes and as a signal to interested buyers. And the use of catchy names and familiar images—one strain, called “Scooby Snax,” shows a happy-looking Scooby Doo surrounded by psychedelic rays of light—certainly lures younger users into a sense of security about the “legal marijuana” they are purchasing. 

To many pro-marijuana advocates, the phrase “synthetic cannabis” is a misnomer. The name implies that the drug functions in the same way as marijuana and with the same potential side effects. In reality, there is no way for users to discern its chemical composition or how much to take in order to get the desired high. In a 2014 interview with Golocalprov, Jared Moffat, director of an anti-prohibition coalition called Regulate Rhode Island, remarked that synthetic marijuana is “a bunch of random chemicals sprayed on some random herbs or plants. Calling this ‘synthetic marijuana’ is a bit like calling methamphetamine ‘synthetic coffee.’” 




Efforts to stop the flow of synthetic drugs into the US have grown since their first entry in 2008 and now often involves law enforcement from other countries. In 2013 the DEA completed Project Synergy, which spanned 35 states and five countries and led to over 200 arrests and the seizure of thousands of kilograms of synthetic drugs. It’s widely known that most of the drugs are being made by underground chemical labs in China and the Czech Republic, before being sold to distributors who pass it along to thriving markets in the US, Europe, and increasingly Asia. The appeal seems to be, at least in part, the availability of a marijuana-like product that allows pot enthusiasts to purchase their high legally. 

But the “recipe” for K2 is not confined to shady chemical labs in other parts of the world. In lieu of buying the brightly colored packets from the local corner store, pretty much anyone can craft batches of homemade Spice. It doesn’t require much beyond plant matter—tobacco is popular, but menthol and chamomile are alternatives—acetone or rubbing alcohol, and a choice of synthetic cannabinoid. The recipes are easily found via Google search, and many of the necessary chemical compounds can be ordered online from labs selling “research chemicals.” It’s not clear whether these laboratory websites are entirely legal, but the fact is they are very easy to find. 

The practice of private drug production and consumption is not new—meth labs and distribution centers of various sizes have been a part of the drug landscape for years. But a bit of enterprising chemical manipulation has given both curious teenagers and enterprising drug merchants access to a convenient, cheap, and often unpredictable high. Despite constant government efforts to stem imports of the drug and limit its health impacts, Spice and its synthetic cousins don’t seem to be going anywhere. Pro-marijuana advocates would say that this is a prime reason to legalize marijuana. Increasing support for legalizing marijuana across the country could also be making synthetic cannabinoids seem like a viable alternative despite their differences. But whatever the reasons, it’s clear that synthetic marijuana has opened up a new frontier for drug laws and drug consumption.  


CAMERA FORD B’16 is not fit for human consumption.