Better Living Through Chemistry? – Editorial

Almost unnoticed in the national media was the implementation of an emergency ban by the DEA and schedule 1 classification of many synthetic cannabinoid chemicals Dec. 24th. From the Huffington Post:

The synthetic weed, known as “K2” or “spice” and generally sold in head shops, is popular among police officers, members of the military and others looking to avoid failing a drug test, said one hemp store owner who sells the product. The high from marijuana is created by its main active ingredient THC, but also by the plant’s several dozen poorly understood cannabinoids. The DEA had banned any drug containing natural or synthetic THC, but has not addressed the cannabinoids. ….DEA will publish in the Federal Register a Final Rule to Temporarily Control these chemicals for at least 12 months with the possibility of a six-month extension. They will be designated as Schedule I substances, the most restrictive category, which is reserved for unsafe, highly abused substances with no medical usage.”

Many Pagan and Shamanic traditions have traditions of mind altering aids to spiritual journeying, and I dare say, some continued practices exist. The development of synthetic cannabinoids presents challenges to all the issues and arguments surrounding consumption of mind altering drugs.  Similar to THC, the active agent in marijuana, many chemicals are just different enough to remain unclassified legally even today, after this DEA ban.
Banned by DEA as of Dec 24th is JWH-018, and a few other defined chemicals. The origin of these chemicals is with John William Huffman,  professor emeritus of organic chemistry at Clemson University who first synthesised many analogues and metabolites of  THC .  In the late 2000s, two of Huffman’s cannabinoid compounds began being sold in Germany as marijuana alternatives known as K2 and Spice. 

“I figured once it got started in Germany it was going to spread. I’m concerned that it could hurt people,” Huffman said. “I think this was something that was more or less inevitable. It bothers me that people are so stupid as to use this stuff”.  Huffman may have developed these compounds for scientific research, but now he gets blamed for its abuse. Angered by this accusation, Huffman says,  “If you go around paying $40 for a packet of leaves that contains who knows what and smoke it, you are not a very responsible person. This is akin to playing Russian roulette“.

JWH-018 was first imported and marketed wholesale as a powdered ” Bansai tree fertilizer “. Based on current demand, folks somewhere are apparently growing the best and shortest trees ever! The demand for the remaining synthetics has exploded in the USA. The chemistry is complex, but most chemicals available now are a variant of the basic JWH structure. A whole

Unregulated JWH-251

range of emerging chemicals stimulate the same brain receptors as THC does, but are chemically different enough to be difficult to test for.  Each must be analyzed and tests for them developed to effectively ban them.  Do a search for  “buy jwh-”  and hundreds of sales websites pop up.

Most alarming is the lack of research or information about these chemicals. The High Times influenced side of the debate maintains these chemicals are as benign as marijuana. Governments world-wide and now also the USA are banning them, but even science lacks any significant research. The most authoritative overview I found with the Psychonaut Research Group JWH-018 report, Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College, London,UK 2009 , but even this is only a web-based collection of information.

Image from

The attraction for these chemicals is easy to understand. With the illegal status of marijuana, a quick high without risking your freedom, job, or reputation is attractive. But what are you risking? These are emerging and powerful chemicals, many less than a year old. Even advocates admit any illusion of  ‘safety’  is pure speculation, and yet bans appear to be on principle rather than documented hazards or health risks.

The remaining chemicals available are mainly sold in ‘head’ type shops, often in campus towns. Sold “at your own risk” as incense, but when have youth really considered what that risk is, failing an immediate trip to an emergency room?

I interviewed an area hookah lounge shop owner, who spoke anonymously:

Do you offer any of the synthetic THC type chemicals in your store?

“We sell it, and I’ve smoked it a few times. We mostly make our own herbal mixtures and add it to it. You buy the chemical and you have to use to something to dilute it. Everclear is the safest way to go. Then you spray it on smoking herbs.”

Have local police questioned you about it?

“We haven’t gotten harassed or anything. We have it in a little display case that we leave out. It is pretty much our store’s main selling point. The local cops, they really haven’t harassed us at all. They haven’t stopped in or anything. When we were traveling on a road trip, we were pulled over a few times. We were in a hippie car and I got pulled over and they saw all these bags of herbs. They said,” I think those are a whole lot of dime bags you have there”, but then they apologized for wasting our time when they really looked at it. It is not illegal. Certain strains are completely off-limits now. They have a full restriction on them and you can’t purchase them at all. They listed five or seven certain strains of the chemical and there is still like twenty out there to buy. We just switched to what is available.”

When customers visit, is this what they come for?

” It started out like people just visited the store and it was just there. Now it has gotten extremely popular and people come in because we have it. We don’t smoke it in the hookahs, but people will sometimes smoke it in the store. Most buy it and take it home. It doesn’t work well rolled up like a cigarette, so like pipes are what people use. We have the lowest prices around because we make it. The brands, like K2, well a gram can go up to $20-$30 a piece. We have three gram bags for $20, Our one gram bags are high potent stuff, and that is a little more pricey. ”

It sounds as expensive as marijuana, do customers buy it because it is cheaper?

” A lot of people who buy it are just trying to stay out of trouble. People who don’t want to end up in the paper, or with a bad test. From my own personal use, it is comparable to pot, but not the same. It doesn’t last as long, and it is a slightly different effect. A lot of the products are sedative and at the same time you get a little bit jittery. ”

It is an unknown chemical, is there any issue selling it for you?

“We don’t tell people straight up when they come in that they should smoke this. It is labeled “not for human consumption’,  it is an herbal incense. It is definitely obvious that it is there for smoking. I mean we aren’t hard-core and kick people out for talking about smoking it, because it is unregulated. You can do what you want with it, however we are not held liable if something happens. It still is a research chemical, we don’t know everything. It is a drug. There are addictive properties to it. No one we know has suffered harm from it. When we first started getting into it, I smoked it pretty frequently for about three months straight and had no problem with it. I know some people can get a really nasty head ache from it. We did a whole lot of research before we even decided to put it into the store. We looked into the chemical composition, and the actual medical studies that have been done. They have been using it medically and supposedly it is used in a cure for a certain type of testicular cancer. ”

Is being high better than not being high? Is there a benefit to you?

“I like to get high. I just see these forms as a way to, enhance isn’t the word, maybe explore. Why can’t we just try to alter the way our brains are normally working. People drink caffeine to wake up, why can’t we get high to explore. I think it gives me some benefits. I feel like I actually think out of the box in my process, and I actually slow down a little bit. ” 

The continued development and use of these drugs brings up old issues.  Is the risk of prison primary over an unknown health risk?  When is safe, really safe? When does risk of harm, overcome our right to personal choice? Do we have the inalienable right to be “high”?  If you can’t test for it, and it is legal, is it ok?  Will imprisonment stop being the preferred state solution to citizen problems associated with mind altering drugs?  Would we as a society accept and tolerate an always altered populace if it doesn’t cause apparent harm?  Where do Pagans stand on the right to alter their minds with chemistry, in the pursuit of their spiritual growth, or simply for recreation?

Human society is often said to have begun to facilitate brewing, and brewing may pre-date the baking of bread. According to Egyptian legend, Osiris, the god of agriculture, taught humans to prepare beer. Mind altering traditions  have progressed onward from there. 

I don’t have the answers, but I know our youth are running flat on into a future that is as uncertain and new as the next chemical high. Frankly, it worries me.

Consumer research example.