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10 of the Most Lied About Drugs

The hysteria over drugs like Spice, bath salts and kratom is drowning out the facts.

The market for legal—or until recently legal—highs is booming. A recent report by the EU’s drug agency, for example, shows that it is currently monitoring a staggering  280 of them. What exactly are these myriad substances? Thanks in part to the media’s habit of lumping them together into one scary whole—with regular outbreaks of frenzy, such as with Bath Salts last year—they often remain shrouded in mystery and rumor.

To get closer to the truth I decided to ask Jeff Lapoint, MD, an attending physician in emergency medicine and medical toxicology at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, who is also a former senior toxicology fellow at New York University’s Bellevue Hospital. He’s an expert who both understands these drugs’ complex chemistry and, through his work with New York City’s Poison Control, has hands-on experience of how these drugs can affect users. Despite having seen the dark side of these substances, he retains a cool head when it comes to the future of this market, recognizing that harsher laws will do nothing to help users, and that there’s no such thing as a “bad” chemical. But in their current unregulated condition—with dosing, toxicity, cuts, etc., all a crap shoot—using some of these chemicals as drugs can be very bad indeed.

Legal highs vary wildly in their effects—and have-a-go chemists are constantly developing new compounds. Trying to map such a market isn’t easy, but with Lapoint’s expertise—and some user experiences, including one or two of my own—we’ll make a start. 

1. Synthetic Cannabinoids (Spice, K-2, etc.)

“Man has been smoking marijuana for 4,000 years,” says Dr. Lapoint. “That’s a pretty damn good human trial. Compare that to five years of synthetic cannabinoids. We have no idea what the long-term effects of those might be, and that’s scary.” Lapoint concedes that the debate on the medical properties of marijuana is still up for grabs, though “what you cannot argue with is marijuana’s safety.” But he warns that synthetic cannabinoids are an entirely different ball game. In fact, he says, calling this stuff “synthetic marijuana” at all is a fallacy.

Synthetic marijuana briefly took off among users who enjoyed the novelty of a legal drug that actually worked. Experiences ranged from the sublime: “ I felt a very familiar sensation of ‘getting high’ exactly as if I had just hit some decent bud,” to the terrifying: “ Marijuana is simply lovely. However, I consider Spice to be the lovely Mary Jane's psychotic sister that stays locked in the attic, chained to a pole and wearing a muzzle.”Synthetic cannabinoids have been sold under countless brand names; the more famous include Spice, K2 and Black Magic. As with many legal highs, the ingredients listed on the package usually comprise a selection of allegedly benign legal herbs, but lab testing tells a different story. The psychoactive effects are caused by spraying certain chemicals—most commonly  JWH-018,HU-210 and CP-47/497—onto the plant material. Their active ingredients are lab-tweaked variations of THC—pot’s active ingredient—that often “do not even [structurally] look like THC anymore,” says Lapoint. “The only similarity between this stuff and marijuana is that these substances bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain. This is worrying because we do not fully understand these receptors.” Some synthetic cannabinoids bind to these receptors up to 100 times more effectively than THC, with wildly unpredictable effects, including psychosis and depression.

Last year the US government outlawed many of the more popular synthetic cannaboids, but there is almost no end to the tweaking that can be done to THC’s chemical structure. Chances are, the next wave of “synthetic marijuana” will act even less like pot than the first. Lapoint compares the dangerous boom in these substances to the mass production of dangerous bathtub hooch during Prohibition. “The sad truth is that there is a safer substance that humankind has extensive experience with, yet it remains illegal.”

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