Synthetic cannabis is a hot topic right now, and public misconception may be hurting the cannabis legalization movement. Synthetic cannabis is a general name for a mix of artificial compounds designed to mimic the effects of cannabis. There have been an increasing number of reports of adverse reactions to synthetic cannabis, and urgent care professionals are dealing with symptoms far beyond the scope of traditional cannabis use. Synthetic cannabis as a designer drug can be incredibly dangerous since the contents are generally unknown and unregulated. While natural cannabis and synthetic cannabis are both listed by the DEA as Schedule I drugs, it is important that the cannabis community spreads the knowledge that the two are completely different when it comes to the pharmacological and toxicological effects.
What Exactly is Synthetic Cannabis?
Synthetic cannabis is somewhat of a misnomer. In reality, it is a consumer drug that contains a variety of compounds designed to mimic the effects of regular phyto-cannabinoids (chemicals from the cannabis plant) as they act on the receptors within our individual endocannabinoid systems. In the early 2000s, synthetic cannabis became widely available, marketed as an herbal substitute for illegal cannabis flowers. However, laboratory tests later showed that the herbal blends were sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids. These artificial cannabinoids are manufactured in large laboratories in less-regulated regions, such as China from recent reports. Synthetic cannabis has several names on the street but the most common is “Spice,” the original brand name which is now synonymous with any mix of artificial cannabinoids. However, laboratories continue to produce new variations of artificial cannabinoids, making it very difficult to detect in urine tests. There are several families of synthetic cannabinoids (JWH, CP 47,497 aka cannabicyclohexanol, etc.) that are found to cause much more activity than the psychoactive phyto-cannabinoid commonly known as THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). Synthetic cannabis remains listed as a Schedule I narcotic, alongside all chemical constituents of the cannabis plant.
Where Does Synthetic Cannabis Originate?
Synthetic cannabis was first developed at universities and large pharmaceutical companies. In fact, Pfizer is responsible for creating CP 47,497 in the 1980s. Now, synthetic cannabis is thought to be produced mainly in large, unregulated laboratories, where new chemical derivatives are constantly in development. The DEA recently arrested Haijan Tian, a Chinese chemist accused of leading a laboratory responsible for the production and export of these psychoactive chemicals. However, Mr. Tian’s operation is certainly not the only production laboratory, and many brands of synthetic cannabis are still sold in liquor stores and head shops worldwide. They are often branded as herbal incense or a smoking blend of spices, as no store owner will ever outright offer you synthetic cannabis because of its near-universal illegal status.
Why are People Using Synthetic Cannabis?
Businesses around the country continue to distribute synthetic cannabis even though it is against the law. And people continue to purchase it, despite a surge of health issues being highlighted in recent reports. We are only halfway through 2015 and the American Association of Poison Control Centers has already received 4,377 cases involving synthetic cannabis. Synthetic cannabis blends are cheaper than its natural counterpart, but the effects are generally inconsistent. This is because blends of synthetic cannabis are mixes of unidentified substances with unknown effects in untraceable combinations, all with a varied chemical potency.
Despite the inconsistencies, people use synthetic cannabis for many reasons, the most notable being that this designer drug does not show up on traditional drug tests, which search for specific cannabis metabolites in urine. Although it is listed as a Schedule I drug, many people just assume that “synthetic cannabis” is simply mis-classified by the DEA, like the cannabis plant. This confusion is unfortunate for natural cannabis, which has been making leaps and bounds toward the greener pastures of legalization.
How Will Synthetic Cannabis Influence Legalization?
There is a major misunderstanding of what is actually present within synthetic cannabis. Because those who are unfamiliar with cannabis do not immediately know the difference between artificial cannabinoids and phyto-cannabinoids like THC and CBD, the negative issues associated with synthetic cannabis are often attributed to cannabis as a whole. As the cannabis plant approaches the end of prohibition, the synthetic/natural distinction needs to be more pronounced so that adverse health effects of synthetic cannabinoids are not combined with the general public’s attitude toward cannabis. While both natural and synthetic cannabinoids are called “cannabis,” and both are classified as Schedule I narcotics, it is necessary to the successful future of the cannabis community that we all know the unmistakable differences.
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