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A user's guide to 'legal weed'

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I've been aware of the availability of legal marijuana substitutes for years, but like many people, I assumed this was nothing more than a racket. After all, it struck me as quite odd that this would get past the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, and I was at pains to imagine what chemical substitute could possibly produce the physical and mental sensations one experiences after using actual weed.

But then, at the beginning of July, I received two e-mails. Both were from friends of mine who did not know each other, and each had recently gone to a local smoke shop where they purchased "herbal incense." My friends had previously shared my own skepticism, and they were writing to let me know that this was one of those rare occasions where what I thought was too good to be true was, in fact, quite true.

As reported in The New York Times and a plethora of other newspapers in the last two months, the not-so-secret ingredient in the herbal incense my friends purchased is JWH-018 (or one of its many variants), a synthetic cannabinoid that was developed for medical research purposes at Clemson University by Dr. John W. Huffman. (I assure you that is his actual last name.)

Marketed as "incense," many websites and Charlotte-area smoke shops (as well as a number of local convenience stores) sell the product for aroma-therapy purposes. By labeling the product as incense and printing the phrase "Not for Human Consumption" on the package, producers and retailers are able to bypass various federal and state regulations. As Barbara Carreno, a spokeswoman for the DEA told The New York Times, "Everybody knows it's not incense. [Its sale] is done with a wink and a nod."

Sold under a variety of brand names such as K2, Spice, King Kyrpto and Mango Madness, the product itself either looks like dried oregano or cheap potpourri. According to Dr. Anthony Scalzo, a professor of emergency medicine at St. Louis University, the leafy, potpourri-like substances are typically inert organic compounds that serve as the mode of delivery for the synthetic cannabinoids that have been sprayed on them. These herbal blends have started attracting attention lately because the lack of regulation means that there is little in the way of preventing teenagers from purchasing the products, and naturally parents are concerned. The retailers I spoke to while researching this article assured me that they do not sell herbal blends to people under 18. Still, I suspect The New York Times reported on synthetic marijuana in part due to the death of David Rozga of Iowa, a teenager who shot himself in the head after using K2. The local police were quick to pin his death solely on the use of the herbal blend; the rifle he used remains free of blame.

In Europe, where attitudes about the personal use of cannabis are generally quite relaxed, countries such as Germany, France, Poland, Russia, and Ireland have placed bans on JWH-018 within the last year. In the U.S., eight states — including Tennessee and Georgia — have very recently made the sale of products containing JWH-018 illegal. There is currently no federal regulation regarding the sale of JWH-018, though the DEA does list it as a "chemical of concern."

The e-mails I received from friends two months ago were sent largely because my friends have jobs that prevent them from smoking marijuana. I also have a job that requires me to follow the letter of the law, and I've learned to abide the rules of anyone who signs my check. As JWH-018 is legal, I sampled it for the purposes of this article. Reading the reports of others is one thing, but I very much hold by the teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson: direct experience most informs the mind.

I haven't smoked marijuana for many years, and thus I no longer have any smoking paraphernalia. I was reluctant to simply roll a number (in part because I am out of practice, and also I have asthma), so I tracked down an old friend who still smokes regularly and lives alone, thus giving me access to the proper tools and a safe environment in which to experiment.

I am not a medical doctor, and I would never advise anyone to set anything on fire and then inhale it, especially a substance that requires some knowledge of proper dosing and is clearly labeled "Not for Human Consumption." Dr. Huffman, the aforementioned chemist at Clemson who developed the synthetic cannabinoids in question, has stated in interviews with several news agencies that the "effects in humans have not been studied and they could very well have toxic effects." Duly noted, but my own misuse of legally purchased products is my business.

It should come as no surprise that I take a libertarian stance on altering one's own consciousness; once you're an adult, I really don't care what you do with yourself as long as you don't hurt other people. But if anyone is under the illusion that simply because JWH-018 can be bought and sold legally, it is safe for everyone, please think otherwise. A small amount does produce visual distortions and a marijuana-like buzz. I can easily understand how individuals with little or no experience in navigating this psychic terrain could experience extreme panic attacks that prompt them to seek medical attention. (That did not happen to me, of course. I sat on a couch for several hours and listened to Pink Floyd's Meddle.)

And this, to me, is the real issue surrounding synthetic cannabinoids. It is not a problem that responsible people use them (I doubt I will repeat my own experiment; it offered me nothing I had not previously experienced.), it is a serious problem that naïve and foolish people use them. It is the same problem that surrounds alcohol and any other number of legal prescription drugs. Given the current political climate, I predict that by the mid-term November elections, politicians will be lining up in droves to pass legislation to protect our precious children from the "scourge" of synthetic cannabinoids.

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