Synthetic Madness

In the past year, store-bought synthetic drugs, such as bath salts and spice, have been in the limelight for a range of bizarre crimes and unfortunate hospitalizations. For one unlucky teen, synthetic marijuana led to a visit to the ICU. What started out as an attempt to sleep off a simple migraine left her waking up in a state of violent delirium. After having been sedated for several days and having a hole drilled in her skull to relieve pressure build-up, an MRI scan revealed that she had suffered from multiple strokes. Now blind and going through occupational, physical, and speech therapy, her family has started a synthetic awareness program called SAFE to warn parents and users of the harm these drugs can potentially cause.

What’s most unsettling is that this isn’t just an isolated case of a synthetic marijuana experience gone wrong. There were a whopping 11,406 cases of hospital visits in 2010 alone, the majority of them kids aged from 12 to 17 years old. Spice and other varieties of the drug have been known to cause an array of adverse side-effects, including elevated heart rates, elevated blood pressure, tremors and seizures, paranoid and violent behavior, loss of consciousness, brain swelling, and even death. 

With these effects in mind, the county of Hillsborough, Florida is looking to ban the possession, sale, and manufacturing of all headshop, convenience store, and gas station bought synthetics stating that, “synthetic drugs may be more potent and dangerous than the controlled substances they are designed to mimic due to the unapproved chemicals and chemical compounds contained within them.” But Florida’s not alone. About 41 other states have passed measures comparable (but to a somewhat lesser degree) to what Hillsborough is now ratifying. However, these measures haven’t slowed down manufacturers of spice or bath salts as they consistently tweak the chemical formula and sell it under false pretenses (incense, potpourri, and other household items) to avoid legal persecution.

So where’s the root to all this madness? According to Jacob Sullum, the desire to alter one’s consciousness is a natural drive of human nature, and if you look across cultures throughout history, you’ll consistently find that people discover ways to alter their consciousness via drugs or other methods. No matter what regulations are put forth, people are going to alter their consciousness, whether it be with cigarettes and alcohol, bath salts and spice, or meditation and yoga. 

Currently, marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug in the United States, and is found to be one of the safest mind-altering, not to mention medicinal, substances to date. But due its Schedule I status and the booming industry of drug testing, Americans are scared to be persecuted for their use of the herb. It’s precisely this fear that gave rise to the synthetic market; these drugs are hard to test for, convenient to buy, and slightly mimic the drug they try to copy so that people can use them without worrying about losing their jobs.

Fortunately, with the demystification and growing support for the marijuana movement, it looks like the days of prohibition are coming to an end. Already 18 states have passed legislation for medicinal use and two have just recently passed measures legalizing recreational use. Despite all the good news, marijuana is still illegal at the federal level. 

With the recent congressional proposals by two politicians, Jarid Lois and Earl Blumenauer, defederalization of the plant might just be around the corner. These legislative measures would allow states to regulate marijuana as they see fit, reschedule it under Title 27 of the US code (provisions for intoxicating beverages), cease the DEA’s involvement in marijuana enforcement, allow federal permits for commercial growers, and collect tax revenue on its sales. Hopefully this measure becomes authorized and other states follow suit with the initiatives of Colorado and Washington so that these synthetics fall out of popularity with the public.

As marijuana proliferates, it's possible that we will begin to experience a gradual cultural shift away from a patriarchal, gangster, war-obsessed, divisionary-minded attitude to a more holistic, cosmically responsible, peace-oriented mindset.

Image by Fort Sill Cannoneer, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing