I exited the prediction racket a couple of years after writing a feature in 1985 in which I predicted a coming flood of cheaply made, illicit synthetic drugs. The hook for my prediction was the rise of clandestinely made analogs of fentanyl and Demerol in California. The fentanyl analogs killed more than 100 users who thought they were injecting "China White" heroin, and the Demerol knockoff paralyzed scores of users who likewise thought they were injecting heroin.
My prediction didn't come true. I stupidly assumed because a single chemist could cheaply produce the equivalent of the world's heroin supply without having to grow poppies and could store his stash in his garage—yes, fentanyl is ultra-potent—drug cartels would seize on the enterprise. I also forecast that renegade chemists concocting synthetic stimulants would destroy the cocaine market and synthetics substitutes would even overtake soporifics like marijuana.
I was wrong. Oh, clandestine fentanyl has continued to pop up in urban settings like a fugitive ailanthus tree and caused or contributed to the deaths of more than 1,000. And illicitly made methamphetamine is seen in some places where it wasn't common a generation ago. But I should have listened to the Drug Enforcement Administration official who told me that wholesale heroin, cocaine, and marijuana were sufficiently cheap and easy to smuggle that synthetics had no real marketplace advantage. He was right, and I've been reluctant to commit acts of prophecy ever since.
But even a false prophet gets it partly right sometimes. See, for example, this handsomely reported cover story by Ben Paynter in the new Bloomberg BusinessWeekabout the market for legal, lab-made marijuana substitutes sold at shops under such names like K2, Spice, and Pandora as "incense." Paynter paints a nice profile of one synthetic entrepreneur, 24-year-old Wesley Upchurch, and if you ignore the occasional melodramatic moment or the sensationalism of the subheads on the cover ("dangerous"), the inside display ("increasingly scary"), and the web version ("fatal side effects … increasing")—you've got yourself a pretty dandy drug-capitalism story. I like this piece, I really do, and I look forward to more from Paynter.
What explains the apparent (but unmeasured) popularity of synthetic cannabinoids when many doctors will write you a prescription for the real thing? As an article in the Phoenix New Timespointed out in 2010, the incense blends containing the cannabinoid JWH-0138 cost more ($25 a gram) than potent marijuana ($14 a gram). The piece also complained that the high was too short. I've yet to hear a pothead extol the altered states that the synthetics provide over the natural variety. The folks at Weed Street Journal hate it.
In 2009, the stoners at Kansas City Pitch performed a taste test in the parking lot of the botanical store where they purchased their two bags of K2. "Makes me super nauseous. Need to lie down," comments Pitch's occasional smoker. It's comparable to "middies," declared a moderate smoker, adding, "I'll definitely smoke it again." The author of the piece found that K2 makes everything "hilarious for about 30 minutes" but allows that "if K2 is banned before you get a bag, you didn't miss much." See also the taste tests at the Vaults of Erowid.
Paynter's explanation for the synthetic enthusiasm: "Some say they need to pass a drug test; synthetics do not show up in standard tests." How would you like to be on parole and have to go back to jail because a piss test revealed that you smoked some pot? Paynter continues: "Others are businessmen in khakis who like the idea of buying from someone they trust." Also, until the government gets around to making a cannabinoid illegal, you can't get busted for possession, and once the government does, the chemists are ready to tweak the molecule to create another legal version.
For all of its reporting, the BusinessWeek piece never finds a metric that would allow us to measure the size of the synthetic cannabinoid market. A DEA employee estimates that there are at least 1,000 makers of synthetics, but the piece doesn't attempt to extrapolate from that to the number of users. Wesley Upchurch claims to produce 41,000 packets a month, but that seems like small potatoes considering the size of the United States. A Web search of "buy JWH" produces 3,800 Chinese labs ready to produce custom orders of synthetic cannabinoids, the magazine reports, but I have no confidence that BusinessWeek confirmed there are 3,800 unique labs capable of and willing to produce synthetic dope in China. Even if there are, so what?
Also, the recent doubling of calls to poison control centers—2,324 in the first five months of 2011—doesn't tell us much without context. In 2008, poison control centers took 2.5 million poison-exposure calls. Were the calls from novice drug users? What symptoms did they describe? Were the symptoms life-threatening? Do first-time users of marijuana call poison centers, or do they know that pot really can't kill them so they wait out the paranoia? Likewise, the anecdotes about one suicide by a young user and a murder/suicide by a high school student tell us more about the individuals than the drug.
If the synthetic-cannabinoid market is a niche, and I think it is, let me offer a couple of conjectures (no predictions!) about the stuff. First, our culture has thousands of years of experience with plain old marijuana that confirm its relative safety but only a few years with such cannabinoids as JWH-018, JWH-073, JWH-200, CP-47.497, and the rest, and we have sparse clinical understanding of the long-term effects of those compounds. It seems to me that nobody outside of parolees, kids who don't know better, folks who can't find a real dealer, and mothers and fathers in khaki would want to partake of fake pot. Also, as BusinessWeek reports, you rarely have a good idea of what's in your incense, while marijuana contamination/adulteration seems to be relatively uncommon. (I say that after conducting a literature search.)
Implied in BusinessWeek'sfeature is that ultra-vigilant drug enforcement—the banning of drug compounds and the precursors to make them—leads to more potentially dangerous and unpredictable drugs. If pot were really legal and not just quasi-legal in selected jurisdictions, who would bother with marketing K2 and Spice? Who would pay money for a bag of mystery ingredients? By cracking down on the existing synthetics, the government only stimulates drug entrepreneurs to greater experimentation to find new legal molecules—and the analogs of fentanyl and Demerol show us how grave that can be.
Perhaps reflecting the ambivalence of its namesake, Michael Bloomberg—who in 2002 said, ''You bet I did. And I enjoyed it'' in response to a question of whether he had ever tried marijuana, and then expressed his regrets for telling the truth—this BusinessWeek feature makes the case for pot legalization. In a weird way.
Here's a nice takedown of a nutty ABC News piece about Spice by John Hudson at the Atlantic Wire. Thanks to reader Daniel B. Lippman, who knows my obsessions better than I do and emailed me this piece at 9:44 a.m. today. What have you done for me lately? Get that bong out of your mouth and send a story idea to firstname.lastname@example.org. My Twitter feed passes its piss test twice a month. (Email may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)