(ANTIMEDIA Op-ed) Lancaster County, PA — Last weekend, 102 people overdosed on synthetic marijuana in Lancaster County, PA. Though no deaths were reported, the startling number of people in a single county who overdosed on the drug, also called “Spice” or “K2,” reveals the realities of the war on the drugs and authorities’ continued failure to properly deal with drug addiction.
Synthetic cannabis first originated in the 1990s, as Slate explained last year:
“Like ecstasy and LSD, SCs owe their existence to academic research. The chemist who developed the first SC compounds was a Clemson University professor named John W. Huffman, who was interested in the brain receptors that regulate “appetite, nausea, mood, pain and inflammation.” According to this Washington Post profile, Huffman synthesized a compound he called JHW-018 in 1993 and published a series of academic papers that contained the formula. Years later, that formula was used as a recipe by underground drugmakers…”
Synthetic marijuana, like THC — the active ingredient in real cannabis — interacts with cannabinoid receptors in the brain. As a result, “manufacturers play up the association between their products and traditional marijuana by spraying their chemicals onto diced-up dry plant matter that can be sold in baggies and smoked,” Slate explained.
But the effects of synthetic cannabis are often nothing like real weed. Huffman says real cannabis has a mellowing effect, which synthetic cannabis lacks. Slate notes side effects “include catatonia, profound anxiety and paranoia, nausea and vomiting, elevated heartbeat and blood pressure, seizures, and hallucinations.” The effects are not the same for everyone, but as Rolling Stone pointed out in 2015, the U.S. government’s 2011 decision to assign Schedule I status to the drug — which has many variations — made it difficult to research its effects.
Without extensive knowledge of how the drug works, who it affects and how, and what a “safe” dose might be, Spice continues to put people in danger. But making the drug illegal has caused far more problems than a lack of information.
In July 2013, Fox 43, an affiliate in Pennsylvania, reported that the state had passed a law that banned all synthetic drugs and gave police authority to take action regardless of what was in the substance in question. At the time, the outlet claimed it was having profoundly positive effects. “[N]ot even a month after it was enacted, this law is already having a significant impact. It’s because of this law that went into effect on July 3rd that police busted clerks and owners of 4 convenience stores in Harrisburg for selling synthetic marijuana. Police are no longer playing catch up when it comes to dealing with synthetic drugs,” Fox 43 reported.
Given this report, one might assume that six years later, the problem of synthetic cannabis use would have been eradicated. But months before this blanket law was even passed, Pennsylvania outlet WPXI reported — intentionally or not — on the futility of such bans:
“They are banned in Pennsylvania, but Channel 11 News has found synthetic drugs still being sold in stores and winding up in the hands of teenagers.
“This summer, President Barack Obama signed a law banning many of the chemicals used in bath salts, salvia and synthetic marijuana, also known as K2.”
Such laws have undeniably failed considering the 102 overdoses that occurred last month in Lancaster County.
Further, as Rolling Stone pointed out, “In Syracuse, threatening to shut down stores selling synthetic marijuana only pushed the market underground, and had no effect on the overdose rate.”
As Anti-Media has previously explained, making a drug illegal and driving it underground undermines quality standards and accountability, as has been the case with heroin and the tainted street versions of opiate pharmaceuticals that have cropped up as a result of prohibition:
“Since pure heroin is more expensive and rare, dealers become creative, diluting the substance or adding other components to make the supply more powerful.
Seeing an opportunity to earn high profits by selling heroin, tainted heroin, or related drugs on the growing American market — while also eliminating competition — these [Mexican cartel smugglers] have been responsible for higher death rates, as well.”
Unsurprisingly, C. Robert May, director of Lancaster Emergency Services, told CNN last week that normally heroin is “the issue” in his region but that “[t]he assumption is that heroin is not readily available, so people are turning to K2.“
If this is the case, prohibition is also partly to blame. Though much of the country is legalizing cannabis, Pennsylvania has been slow to join. As Philly.com reported earlier this month, “Pennsylvania has only legalized things like vape-pen cartridges, edible cannabis extracts and topical creams for registered patients. It’s known as a ‘no-smoke’ law.”
They note this restrictive legalization makes only the most expensive forms of cannabis available. Unsurprisingly, one of the top reasons people turn to Spice is that it’s cheap (you can also use synthetic cannabinoids without failing a drug test, a common practice in American workplaces that arguably resulted from the government’s anti-drug policies).
Further, the lack of readily available cannabis may also be contributing to the continuation of heroin addiction, which according to May, could be contributing to the spike in Spice overdoses as people struggle to find their drug of choice. Recent research has found that states that provide access to medical cannabis have lower rates of opiate overdose and death. Though Pennsylvania does have a medical marijuana program, it is limited to a handful of qualifying disorders.
Nevertheless, authorities at both the state and federal levels continue to impose more of the same restrictive policies that have already proven to make drugs more dangerous without addressing the underlying root issues of addiction and, as is increasingly clear, prohibition.
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