Cannabis is significantly different to most other drugs for some very important reasons:
Very many more people use cannabis than any other prohibited drug and the vast, vast majority do so without harm with many deriving great pleasure and other benefits from doing so.
It is a totally naturally occurring substance. This naturalness doesn’t of course imply that it is harmless or in some mystical way “good”, but it does mean that like all the other things around us that are a part of the natural world, it is one of those things we have no choice but to learn how to live with, it is not in the gift of mankind to prevent.
It is not a new substance – we have over 5,000 years of recorded experience of cannabis, indeed we know that it has a multitude of uses in the medical and industrial fields, as well as the recreational and spiritual uses politicians find so hard to accept.
None of the above applies to SCRAs which is why we wish to expose the nature of these synthetic chemical imitations.
Prohibition has created yet another problem.
Prohibition tries to control drugs by making certain products illegal to have or to trade in, one of which is cannabis, defined as being parts of the cannabis plant. Unless something is made illegal it is fully legal of course, so if a substance isn’t specifically banned or covered by any other law, then it’s simply not covered by any laws at all.
What has happened in recent years is that the understanding of what makes drugs work has enabled new compounds to be created and manufactured industrially which more or less do the same sort of things in the brain as “real” drugs.
When the drugs law – the “Misuse of Drugs Act 1971″ – was written forty odd years ago, no-one had considered the possibility that such chemicals could be made, nor that a huge demand would have been created for the prohibited drugs, but that is what has happened and a whole industry has been developed to do just that, subsidised by the distorted economics created by prohibition.
We now face a flood of new drugs; the so-called “legal highs”.
Is this really a new thing?
Yes, it is a really new development, nothing like this has ever happened before.
Head shops have long sold packets of “herbal highs” which usually claimed rather more than they delivered in terms of effectiveness, but the new generation of “legal highs” are nothing to do with these.
For a start, there’s nothing “herbal” about these new chemicals, they are very much man-made by industrial processes. These are drugs with which we have no experience and which in most cases have not been tested in any way before being sold. They are also being manufactured with no regulation or control, so the actual product may vary in structure or purity.
Worse, some of the marketing has promoted these chemicals as “safer” alternatives to illegal drugs, simply because they are not illegal.
“Legal highs” come in all sorts, from chemicals which mimic ecstasy to those which mimic cocaine, speed and probably just about everything else that’s popular. A quick look at the government’s anti drugs advertising campaign “Frank” gives an idea of what has happened. Originally only the “traditional” drugs were listed, then sometime last year Frank included a whole wad of new substances.
One type of new “legal high” is of concern to us: SCRAs.
SCRA’s (synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists)
Among this mass of new synthetic chemicals are some that mimic the effect of cannabis and are made up and sold to look like the real thing.
These substances are often called “Synthetic cannabis”, that is a little misleading because they are not synthetic versions of the compounds found in cannabis. This confusion seems to be something governments are keen to promote as they often try to class these substances alongside cannabis.
One way this happens is they are often spoken of as as “cannabinoids” as they are this item on the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), which is supposedly an authoritative organisation:
In the pure state, these substances are either solids or oils. Smoking mixtures are usually sold in metal-foil sachets, typically containing 3 g of dried vegetable matter to which one or more of the cannabinoids have been added. Presumably, a solution of the cannabinoids has been sprayed onto the herbal mixture. A number of plants are often listed on the packaging, but it appears that many are not present. However, large amounts of tocopherol (Vitamin E) have been detected, possibly to mask analysis of the active cannabinoids. The presence of several cannabinoids in some samples may also be intended to confound forensic-chemical detection.
“Cannabinoids” are defined as
“The chemical compounds that are the active principles in marijuana”.
SCRAs do not exist in cannabis and so these chemicals are not Cannabinoids. Actually the ECMDDA article does explain this, before using the term wrongly in the section quoted above:
Although often referred to simply as synthetic cannabinoids, many of the substances are not structurally related to the so-called ‘classical’ cannabinoids, i.e. compounds, like THC
That is a clumsy way of saying these are different chemicals to those made by the cannabis plant.
SCRAs act on the same part of the brain as cannabis compounds do – they interact with the “cannabinoid receptors” – which is why they have an effect a bit like getting stoned. Chemicals which act on the brain like this are called “Agonists” and because they are synthetic chemicals, we get the correct scientific name for them: “Synthetic Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists” or SCRAs.
Yes, it’s all a bit of a mouthful but it’s important to emphasis these chemicals have nothing whatsoever to do with cannabis. They are different chemicals entirely and to understand what that means, you need to know a little organic chemistry.
A level chemistry for beginners
You, your brain and drugs are all made of organic chemicals. Organic chemicals are made up mostly of carbon atoms which have the weird property of joining (or “bonding”) together into long chains to form molecules. Each carbon atom has four bonding locations and other chemicals can bond to the spare carbon bonds, which usually means hydrogen. The way these molecules are drawn is with a series of lines which represent the carbon to carbon bonds.
This is what the THC molecule – the main ingredient in cannabis that gets you stoned – looks like, remember unless otherwise shown, at the end of each bond line is a carbon atom, each of which has four bonds. Hydrogen atoms “H” occupy the bonds not shown, “O” is an oxygen atom:
And this is JWH-018, the chemical known as “Spice”.
There are images of some of the other synthetic SCRA molecules on the ECDDA page, but you get the idea; the molecules are similar enough to work, but different enough not to be covered by the prohibition law.
So what’s the problem?
Drugs work by occupying receptor sites in the brain normally occupied by very specifically shaped brain “messenger” chemicals. The molecular structure is very, very important when it comes to what the effect will be on the consumer. Even small differences in molecular shape may have vastly different results on the brain.
Think of your brain as being a chemical computer which is controlled by chemicals which are designed to do very specific jobs.
We know pretty well what cannabis does because we have around 5000 years of recorded history of its use, but we have no real knowledge of what impact these synthetic chemicals may have beyond the fact that they make the user sort of stoned.
So what if it gets you stoned?
Well, they don’t really get you stoned, not like cannabis does.
Cannabis isn’t just one drug (THC), but the combined effect of several very specific chemicals acting together, but as we know different types of cannabis have subtly different highs.
What these synthetic chemicals do is specific to these SCRA chemicals, it might be a bit like being stoned but it isn’t going to be the same thing. So the answer to what will happen if you take them – especially quite a lot – is “we don’t know”. What we do know is there are often some very unpleasant effects including acute paranoia.
The person responsible for developing SCRAs is Dr Huffman in Clemson University in the USA. He is on record as saying
I want to stress that these compounds were not meant for human consumption. Their effects in humans have not been studied, and they could very well have toxic effects. They absolutely should not be used as recreational drugs. I would emphasize the risk people are taking when they smoke these products. We simply don’t know what the health effects might be
The industry producing and distributing these substances has come about because of the prohibition of cannabis and the resulting huge demand for the cannabis experience. There is money to be made – big money – and so of course some people have decided to do just that. These are business men, they have no knowledge of brain chemistry and are not concerned if their product harms anyone. Likewise the people selling this stuff also have no idea what it is they are selling.
So this is the situation: Untested chemicals manufactured without any proper controls or regulation, distributed by people interested only in making money and sold and promoted as being safer than cannabis because they are not actually illegal. They are not safer than cannabis, indeed they are probably very, very much more dangerous.
The government has done what it always does and rushed through new laws to ban these substances, but like all attempts at prohibition this makes as much sense as a chocolate teapot.
Make no mistake; this whole industry has been created by the present drugs policy, it would simply not have come about without prohibition and prohibition will ensure that the flood of new chemicals will continue.
Ever more prohibition is no solution. There is only one way to kill off the market for products like “Spice” and that is to make real cannabis available.
Advice from CLEAR is that if you want to get stoned, or more importantly need the medical benefits of cannabis, don’t be conned by SRCA’s; demand the real thing. The message to government is along the lines of open your eyes to the harm your brain dead policy is causing.