A New Wave of Designer Drugs, For Sale at Your Local Deli

By Dirk Hanson 04/06/11

A Tsunami of synthetic psychedelics is flooding the U.S., sending thousands of thrill-seeking users into local E.R.s. But as the Senate seeks to ban this latest menace, crafty chemists manage to stay one step ahead of the law.


Bags of Spice, A Synthetic Form of Marijuana, Showcased at Times Square

“On Sunday, June 6, 2010, a week to the day after his graduation, David took his own life… None of this made any sense to us at the time, as we looked back at David, we saw no signs of depression, much less suicide. What terrible parents we were to be so out of touch with our own son that we did not see this…. David had spent most of the weekend with his girlfriend and her family at her graduation party… [some partygoers] confessed they had smoked something called K2. She had never heard of it before, and neither had we.”

So recalled Mike Rozga, father of David Rozga—an 18-year-old Iowa boy who committed suicide after a night of K2 usage—during his tearful testimony yesterday before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control. Co-chaired by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee hearings were called to focus attention on new legislation the two Senators are proposing that would classify drugs like K2, Spice, and other synthetic cannabinoids, which are currently legal in many states, as Category 1 Drugs like heroin and cocaine—and illegal to sell or obtain. As the visibility of these synthetic drugs continues to rise, young David Rozga has become a poster boy for their opponents. It's still unclear if alcohol or other drugs played a part in Rozga's death. 

In fact, there's very little known about synthetic cannabinoids, which first became popular in the United States a few years ago. The American Association of Poison Control Centers recently announced that it had received reports of 2,700 people reporting to emergency rooms so far this year, from people suffering severe symptoms related to synthetic cannabinoid products. There were less than 3,200 such cases in all of 2010. “At that pace,” notes the Associated Press, "visits could go up nearly fivefold by the end of the year.” According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (D.E.A.), “Emergency room physicians report that individuals using these types of products experience serious side effects which include: convulsions, anxiety attacks, dangerously elevated heart rates, increased blood pressure, vomiting, and disorientation.”

Designer drug are hardly a new phenomenon in America. Chemical concoctions from LSD to Ecstasy have been around for decades. Ecstasy—MDMA—which made its first appearance in the late 1970s, was legal for over a decade before authorities declared it verboten.  These days it is being tested by the military as a treatment for veterans recovering from PTSD. But the latest trend began last year in the U.S. and U.K. with the debut of a diverse line of fake marijuana products, which don’t show up in common cannabis drug testing. (In a sign of the times, the cheaply made drugs were initially manufactured and imported to the U.S. from China.) Since then, youthful thrill-seekers have also been loading up on up innocuous-looking products labeled as "bath salts, powdery chemical concoctions that are liberally laced with amphetamine-like substance. Sold under such shlockily exotic names as Moonbeam and Purple Wave, the relatively cheap and drugs are freely sold at bars, groceries and and corner gas stations. The D.E.A. has already exercised its emergency scheduling authority by outlawing the use of five of the fake marijuana drugs—JWH-018, JWH-073, JWH-200, CP-47, 497, and cannabicyclohexanol. Sixteen states have already passed legislation that outlaws one or more of the most popular canabanoid drugs,such as as Spice, K2, or Red X. But most of the new measures do not address the ostensibly more dangerous uppers like Purple Wave, which are still freely available for sale at many stores in New York, Chicago and L.A.

Drugs like K2 have sent almost 3000 people to emergency rooms since January.

But even as new federal directives hit the books, underground drug designers have already been shifting their stategies, focusing their efforts on new compounds that manage to evade federal regulations. According to molecular pharmacologist David Kroll of Terra Sigillata: “Synthetic marijuana marketers had already been reformulating their products with compounds not named in this rule but existing among the portfolio of retired Clemson University organic chemist, John W. Huffman—namesake of the J.W.H. compounds... As I understood the D.E.A.’s authority, sale of these products containing apparently still-legal compounds could still potentially be prosecuted.” Dr. Kroll is referring to high-powered marijuana-like drugs developed by Dr. Huffman for testing on lab rats. And some of the testing involves studying cannabinoids for use in breaking up the plaque that causes Alzheimer’s disease. Much like trying the brown acid, or the joint laced with P.C.P., the effects vary widely. There are numerous anecdotal reports that Spice and its cousins can be extremely unpleasant. There is also reason to believe that the marijuana substances may be addictive for some users, as reported by the influential NIH researcher who blogs as Drugmonkey.

At his testimony, the visibly distressed Rozga described the changes that overcame his son minutes after he took a toke of the drug.  His friends say the young man  turned from a serene, mild-mannered man into a panicked and quivering mess.: “The young men we spoke with who were with David reported that within a few minutes of smoking this drug, David began to get extremely agitated. They thought he needed some fresh air, and took him outside and across the street to a park where they walked around, hoping he would calm down.  David started talking about feeling like he was in hell, and generally not making any sense. After thirty minutes or so, he seemed to start coming down, and said he was tired…. They were going to meet up again that night, and attend a few graduation parties. Unfortunately, after coming home, David continued to be terrorized by the drug, and shot himself.” Some K2 users, Rozga insisted, simply refer to the experience as “the worst experience of their lives.”

Joe Gould, a staff writer for the Army Times who has been covering the increased use of Spice and K2 in the Armed Forces, has written extensively on the case of Spc. Bryan Roudebush, who attacked his girlfriend in Hawaii while under the influence of Spice. Roudebush had been home from an Iraq deployment for a year when the incident occurred. Two earlier experiences with Spice had produced marijuana-like effects. But for Roudebush, the third time was not the charm: He beat his girlfriend and tried to throw her out a window while experiencing what he described as a trance-like state. Late last year, Gould told Addiction Inbox: “What we were told by the folks at the Army Criminal Investigation Lab is that it started showing up on bases, and the investigators on the bases were baffled, and the crime lab wasn’t sure what it was at first.”

What investigators discovered was “all that really defines a synthetic cannabinoid is that it activates cannabinoid receptors. We know what T.H.C. does. But the chemical composition is not T.H.C. There are all these different strains. Some of the state laws we’ve been seeing, they’re targeting specific varieties of this stuff, but there are other varieties that the law doesn’t know about yet. So I think what the Army has done, intentionally or not, it has sort of skirted this whole question by just classifying it all as Spice.”

As for the Roudebush case, Gould said: “The first two times he tried it, it was very much like pot. And then the third time, by his and his girlfriend’s description, he goes into a violent trance. They think it was just a different variety. It’s kind of a mystery. What was in that batch? Why did it affect him the way it did? It just goes to how little is known about the drug. You don’t know from one batch to another.”

Joe Rannazzisi, Deputy Assistant Administrator of the D.E.A., also appeared before the Senate caucus yesterday, and what he had to say was not encouraging: “There may be in excess of a hundred cannabinoid products that have yet to be introduced into the marketplace," he testified. "Manufacturers and distributors have continued to stay one step ahead of any state or federal drug-specific banning action by synthesizing new products that are not controlled.” Many good corporate citizens retailers will discontinue such products, he said. But many will not, “instead opting for the profits realized for the corporate financial bottom line.”

Nothing about this problem is going to vanish from the American landscape anytime soon. The feds continue to pass laws restricting new and untested drugs—laws that drug designers dodge without hesitation by reworking their chemical formulas. The new laws may have aderse effects on legitimate scientists, who use some of these chemicals to pursue serious experiments, but fear running afoul of the law. No such concerns seem to bother the chemical cowboys, however. So far, they have had little trouble staying one mirror molecule ahead of the sheriff.  And in the process of chasing the bad guys, federal agents risk becoming the bulls in the china shop of drug research, making life difficult for medical scientists for years to come.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]