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Synthetic weed. Let that sink in for a minute. Talk about complicating things.

A small, brightly colored foil packet — like ones filled with vitamin powder — labeled "Not For Human Consumption." Inside, some kind of dried, ground-up organic matter, doused in some chemical, concocted in some lab, meant to mimic THC. Sound sketchy? Yes, Northern California is spoiled by an abundance of above-board weed, much grown sans chemicals. But don't take that for granted. Somewhere, people have to smoke fake weed.

Well, "have to" might be putting it a bit strongly, but what these purveyors of pseudo-irieness possess is a quasi-legitimate façade. The individual-use packets of laboratory produced "pot" are sold in head shops worldwide under titles like "Spice" and "Kronic" and are widely available online. For many years, to the buyer's chagrin, "such products usually consisted of plant mixtures with little psychoactive effects," according to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report.

But since 2004, more and more "herbal highs" have turned up positive for synthetic cannabinoids, the report says. It's not just THC that manufacturers are trying to mimic. The UN also reported that 348 "new psychoactive substances" — including variations on methamphetamines and MDMA — have been reported by law enforcement agencies and drug laboratories worldwide since 2009.

Those substances come in a variety of names and effects. You've heard of some before: bath salts, designer drugs, laboratory reagents.

By "new," the UN means that the drugs have been developed (or proliferated) since the organization held conventions in 1961 and 1971 and identified 234 psychoactive substances. Many individual nations have taken legislative action against the slurry of drugs that have popped up since then, but, according to a 2014 report, there is no international law enforcement framework and little known about how the laws affect the global trade.

Learning more about synthetic drugs was the key purpose of a recent study that — among other things — showed how difficult it is to learn much of anything about synthetic drugs. European and North American nations reported the most new drugs to the UN study, but that could be survey bias: Identifying the drugs requires sophisticated and dedicated laboratories.

The effects of using synthetic cannabinoids are little understood, but studies cited by the UN report indicate that cardiovascular problems, psychological disorders, seizures and irregular heartbeat could be side effects. Additionally, the report reads, "an analysis of synthetic cannabinoids in 'spice-like' herbal blends highlighted the increasing number of reports of suicides associated with preceding use of these products."

Lacking any pretention of medicinal value, synthetic weed seems clearly marketed toward people who like glitzy packaging or have a hard time finding weed. Like kids, perhaps. If the idea of smoking up some flammable plant matter dusted with test tube THC bothers you a bit, support your local dispensary and buy sourced, organic pot products grown on a real plant.

And if the UN report is doom and gloom in its assessment of the global fad of designer drugs, there's a bright side. The Office on Drugs and Crime seems to lament a lack of good data about the production and consumption of synthetic drugs, warning against a knee-jerk reaction to the office's latest research.

"[New psychoactive substances] are also a challenge for prevention and treatment. Instead of moral panic, objective and credible information is needed," the report reads. It sounds positively progressive.

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About The Author

Grant Scott-Goforth

Grant Scott-Goforth

Grant Scott-Goforth was an assistant editor and staff writer for The Journal from 2013 to 2017.

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