A worldwide arms race has erupted between inventive street chemists who concoct "legal" highs and government officials who wish to regulate and interdict the proliferation of synthetic cannabis products that can send their users to an emergency room or the morgue.
"Legal" pot with names like Spice, K2, Genie Silver and Yucatan Fire now flies off the shelves as "incense" in head shops, convenience stores and, of course, on the Web. The herbal mixtures are infused with synthetic chemicals that hit the same cellular switches in the brain as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of marijuana.
Although these concoctions are often labeled as being unfit for human consumption, users in the know smoke them for a strong high that can sometimes also produce psychosislike symptoms, rapid heartbeat, seizures, even death. The federal government and many states have enacted laws against the use of some of these drugs, but the problem is growing: During the first eight months of this year, the American Association of Poison Control Centers received calls for 4,421 synthetic pot incidents, a 52 percent increase from the total for all of 2010. And last month, three players from the Louisiana State University Tigers college football team were suspended when they tested positive for the compounds after a random drug screening.
In Arkansas, which passed an emergency order in July 2010 to ban synthetic cannabinoids, officials view the problem as severe enough that they have now deployed a network of federally funded laboratories within their state (in collaboration with state and private laboratories) to keep tabs on the protean ingenuity of street chemists, who reformulate these drugs faster than governments can pass regulations to control them. Each time one is banned, chemists retire to the lab to come up with a new synthetic chemical that, at least for a time, is not illegal and will likely elude drug tests.
In the November issue of Nature Medicine, Jeffrey H. Moran, branch chief for the Public Health Laboratory at the Arkansas Department of Health, authored an opinion article recommending that his state's approach of tapping the analytical chemistry and toxicological capabilities of these labs should serve as an example that might be imitated nationwide. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)
Moran suggests that the Laboratory Response Network, set up by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after 9/11 to combat chemical and biological terrorist threats, be deployed by other state governments for tracking and developing tests for the nearly 150 synthetic pot products in circulation. In Arkansas state agencies have tapped the resources of these labs to identify the latest versions of synthetic pot products and develop tests to detect them. "Ultimately, the collaborative efforts in Arkansas established both the scientific rationale and political support for legislative action," Moran noted in his article.
In March the Arkansas state legislature passed a law that allowed the state's top public health official to decide, after proper testing but without legislative approval, if new forms of synthetic cannabis should be banned for recreational use. In Moran's view, the labs can also serve another purpose. The pursuit of Spice and kindred intoxicants—and the need for a rapid response in developing new tests to detect them—can serve as a practice run for more dire scenarios. "This gives me a teaching tool for the staff here for terrorist events," Moran said in an interview. "Obviously there are not a lot of real instances of those in the workplace."