These efforts mirror those in European countries, where these drugs first appeared, and where a number of governments have laws on the books to remove legal pot products from head shops and online stores. The European Commission also funded the two-year Psychonaut Web Mapping Project in 2009 to monitor the appearance of newfangled compounds, including Spice and other designer drugs like so-called "bath salts," or MDPV (methylenedioxypyrovalerone) and other chemicals.
Some of the most common synthetic cannabis drugs are a scientific experiment that appears to have escaped from the lab, perhaps through the medium of the open scientific literature. Beginning in the 1980s John W. Huffman, a now retired professor of organic chemistry at Clemson University, published journal articles on compounds inspired by the chemistry of THC. At least some of these molecules turned on the brain’s cannabinoid receptors, cellular docking sites, better than THC itself. Some of the easy-to-manufacture compounds identified in the academic papers appear to have been copied by the street chemists. One of them, JWH-018, is among the most common found in synthetic pot. An ingredient missing from the designer formulations is a molecule present in marijuana called cannabidiol, which dampens the anxiety-enhancing properties of THC. Its absence may explain the severe anxiety produced by some of the synthetic cannabis products, fear so intense that, in one case, it provoked at least one user to commit suicide.
Natural cannabinoids, such as THC, are produced in plants and also in the human body to regulate a number of physiological processes. "These receptors don't exist so that people can smoke marijuana and get high," Huffman wrote in an e-mail to Scientific American. "They play a role in regulating appetite, nausea, mood and inflammation." Huffman cautions strongly against their use. "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."
Users seem to be ignoring Huffman's advice. An article in the September issue of Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience observes the presence of a growing Web subculture in which users compare personal experiences with these designer drugs and vote for their favorite smoking blend. Spice Diamond, for instance, emerged as the favorite among 41 smoking mixtures in one contest.
In response to the drugs' proliferation, authorities may be tempted to initiate a forceful crackdown. Huffman warns, though, of unintended consequences. Both academics and pharmaceutical companies continue intensive research on the properties of cannabislike compounds, which play a role in the development of osteoporosis, liver disease and some kinds of cancer. Arkansas allows scientific studies on these chemicals to continue, but Huffman worries that, in some cases, the rules could become too strict. "I am concerned about the impact upon much needed research in this area," he says. Huffman restates the consensus viewpoint of many scientists: Addressing the excesses of the party scene should not upend promising scientific investigations that could lead to new insights into the biology of the cannabinoid system in plants and animals, discoveries that could ultimately produce new pharmaceuticals.
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