The Bathtub Gin of Cannabis
When a fairly safe drug becomes illegal, other things often step in to fill the gap. Sometimes, they’re a lot less safe. We all know that alcohol prohibition led to bathtub gin, a substitute that could leave people blind, crazy, or dead.
The same thing is now happening in the market for cannabis. It appears that unscrupulous vendors are treating non-psychoactive herbs with new, synthetic chemicals designed to mimic the effects of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
The result? “Spice” products. They’re the bathtub gin of cannabis. Unlike the natural stuff, these products don’t have any significant safety record. Dosage levels and side effects are basically unknown. The labels don’t even say which of the new, largely unstudied research chemicals the products contain. As Erowid reported last year:
Because Spice products are used as cannabis replacements, their safety must be compared with that of smoked cannabis… Spice-type products are up against a mountain of historical and scientific evidence that establishes the safety of cannabis.
Large epidemiological studies and experimental data have shown cannabis smoking does not involve many acute risks other than those of general inebriation. Even extended, heavy cannabis use does not appear to cause brain damage, nor substantial increases in risks of lung cancer or heart disease in healthy users; and it causes only moderate increases in respiratory illnesses. Further, THC has been shown to have anti-cancer properties in a number of experiments and has even been shown to be neuroprotective…
What are the health risks of smoking Spice-type products, with their somewhat random assortment of herbal ingredients and largely untested synthetic additives? Even if one formulation is safe, another might not be. At least one of the cannabinoid receptor agonists has reportedly caused a frightening period (8 hours) of unconsciousness followed by a long period (48 hours) of strong intoxication at a dose far under 1 mg. Another caused over two days of on-and-off twilight consciousness at around 1 mg. While cannabinoid receptor agonists are not known to be associated with fatal suppression of either breathing or the cardiovascular system, and a number of the synthetic research cannabinoids have been evaluated by pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, widespread use may turn up other risks.
To you or me, smoking this stuff might seem like an act of colossally bad judgment. Perhaps it is. Where I differ from the prohibitionists is that I would not cheer people on as they make it. (“If they get sick/addicted/hurt, well, they deserved it!”)
Instead, I’d try to come up with safer alternatives. Unlike many acts of bad judgment, this one’s easily preventable. No one would ever think to try these rather frightening substitutes if plain old marijuana were legal. Think about it — Would you drink industrial solvents if you knew that the corner store was selling beer, wine, and vodka? Of course not. And the same is true here.
So sure, some people have different risk profiles, especially, it seems, at the far end of the distribution. The obvious answer to you or me — don’t use cannabis or Spice products — might not be so obvious to them. But I’m not willing to let these folks hurt or maybe kill themselves just to prove some point about my own probity or moral fortitude. Instead, let’s them get what they want while minimizing the risk. With that option on the menu, they might not turn out to be all that different from the rest of us.
Erowid continues, with some excellent analysis of the regulatory environment:
Prohibition of widely used recreational drugs creates profitable markets for novel psychoactives. The unwillingness of governments around the world to authorize new recreational drugs means that such products will necessarily be unregulated. The UNODC estimates that there are over 150 million current cannabis users in the world, virtually all of whom use it illegally, suggesting that the market for effective cannabis replacements is hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
Drug prohibition creates a pressure to develop new substances that are active at low doses, because they are easier to transport and more difficult to detect. Prohibition also drives illicit drug manufacturers to lie about the ingredients of newly designed products.
Incentives to disguise and misrepresent the contents of products arise not only from the threat of criminal penalty, but also from the realities of an unregulated marketplace. Producers who invest time and money in the development of new grey-market products must hide the details of their product from competitors (and thus from the public), in order to maximize their profit. Without the protections afforded by patents and governmental approvals, cheap knock offs hit the market as soon as the nature of Spice came to light.
Read the whole thing, which gives documentation for every one of these claims. And I didn’t even review the chemistry sections.