Synthetic cannabinoids in herbal incense not controlled by law

Synthetic cannabinoids designed to research the health effects and medical applications of cannabis are being sold as legal highs.

Brands such as Spice, Dream, Aroma, Space and possibly others have the cannabinoids, which have cannabislike effects but are usually not listed on the packets. Spice comes in several varieties and has been sold in New Zealand, Europe and Canada since 2002, while other brands have appeared more recently. The active ingredients are sprayed onto a base of herbs such as baybean, blue lotus, scullcap and lion’s tail. The products are often labelled as “incense” but are typically smoked. Anecdotal reports suggest they can also be used in a vaporiser.

Last year authorities in Germany asked a company called THC Pharm, which extracts natural cannabinoids and other psychoactive ingredients from plants, to find the active ingredient in
Spice. In December they announced they has isolated a “cannabimimetic” called JWH-018.

Then on 19 January 2009, the University of Freiburg in Germany announced that the other main active substance in Spice is related to a synthetic cannabinoid called CP 47,497. Different ratios of the two cannabinoids have apparently been used in the different varieties of Spice. US Customs was reported to have seized 100 pounds of Spice containing another potent synthetic cannabinoid called HU-210, but this has not been confirmed.

The synthetic cannabinoids activate cannabinoid receptors, causing similar effects to THC. More than one hundred synthetic cannabinoids already have been designed, many by researchers wanting to investigate the medicinal applications or health effects of cannabis, but who were stymied by anticannabis attitudes and overly restrictive government policies.

The irony is that these chemicals have crossed over onto the legal high market, also as a way of getting around cannabis prohibition. The synthetic cannabinoids in Spice do not resemble illegal cannabinoids, and therefore are not subject to laws restricting drug analogues. Analogues
must have similar molecular structures, and this is not the case.

Germany and Austria quickly banned Spice, but the products remain legal elsewhere. The problem for authorities is that because many more cannabinoids can be easily synthesized, the detected substances could easily be replaced by similar substances.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spice_(drug)
Sources: CBP, AP.

(Originally appeared in NORML News Autumn 2009)

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