New Jersey Bans ‘K2’ While Allowing Medical Marijuana
The New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs has moved to make a temporary ban on the synthetic cannabinoid JWH-018, popularly known as ‘K2’ or ‘spice’, permanent. The man-made drug, linked to seizures and potentially violent psychosis, has been accused of causing at least one death by overdose, yet its popularity rose as a result of its legal status. By banning JWH-018 in a state which also allows use of natural cannabis for medical purposes, New Jersey has become a shining example to other states of what a rational cannabinoid policy might look like.
Natural vs. Synthetic Cannabinoids
The sad irony is that were it not for decades of irrational drug policy, K2 might never have existed at all. John W. Huffman, an organic chemist at Clemson University who first synthesized JWH-018 as an analogue of delta-9-THC (the organic chemical in marijuana most responsible for its intoxicating ‘high’), has strongly denounced recreational use of the synthetic, which he created for research purposes only. But the only reason he had to synthesize ‘Spice’ in the first place was an obstructionist federal bureaucracy.
As a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, natural cannabis may not be cultivated for any purpose – not even research. The sole exception to this policy is the federal government itself, which has been growing cannabis in Oxford, Mississippi since the 1970s for the purpose of studying the drug’s effects. Yet this program has been the subject of intense criticism from the scientific community. University researchers who have applied for permission to study cannabis have waited years only to receive government cannabis which is aged, improperly stored, and weak. Whereas some private laboratories, like Steep Hill Labs in Oakland, test dispensary cannabis in defiance of federal law, other researchers like Prof. Lyle Craker of the University of Massachusetts have fought protracted legal battles for the right to obtain cannabis more similar to what patients are actually smoking – thus far, to no avail.
In light of such unreasonable policies, researchers have done the best they could, by synthesizing cannabinoids which work in ways similar to THC and other natural chemicals as a way to exploit loopholes in the law. Sometimes, this strategy has worked well: HU-211, another synthetic cannabinoid, has been shown to be a promising treatment for certain kinds of cancer. But as the experience with ‘K2’ shows, sometimes the strategy can tragically backfire as unscrupulous distributors exploit the same loopholes in the law to provide curious youth with a cheap and legal way to get high.
As the experience in New Jersey demonstrates, cannabinoids can be potent drugs. Yet there are important differences between chemicals whipped up in a lab and the cannabinoids found naturally in marijuana. While both classes of drugs work by activating the ‘endocannabinoid system’, a network of receptors found throughout the human body, natural cannabis has a built-in safety feature which prevents the worst symptoms of overdose from occurring.
The secret is the chemical complexity of natural cannabis. While ‘K2’ contains a single cannabinoid, natural cannabis contains up to 80. Thus the act of smoking a joint delivers dozens of active constituents which work together in what Ralph Mechoulam, the Israeli researcher who first isolated THC, calls “the entourage effect.” Other drugs present in marijuana like CBD, CBN, CBG, THC-A, THC-V and many others moderate the effects of THC and prevent the user from absorbing too much – this is the leading theory on why there has never been a recorded case of a fatal overdose of natural cannabis. In contrast, drugs like Marinol (pure THC suspended in sesame oil) have no way of providing the entourage effect and are thus responsible for alarming side effects like paranoia and dissociation – symptoms very similar to those of ‘Spice’.
Your Turn, Obama
Thus natural cannabis provides an intrinsically safer way to either treat symptoms or cause intoxication than synthetic isolates like ‘K2’ or Marinol – yet under federal law the more dangerous alternatives are allowed and the safer alternative is banned. If this seems completely backward – well, it is. Natural cannabis is not, as some allege, a completely harmless drug, and some legal restrictions (such as prohibiting sales to minors or requiring a prescription) make sense; but given its inherently safer properties than isolated synthetic alternatives, both morality and common sense demand that it be made available through legal channels which can provide harm reduction and quality control. If placed on an equal legal footing as demonstrably more dangerous drugs, natural cannabis would surely put its competitors out of business.