I think it is more an article of faith than a empirical  fact that liberalizing drug laws or legalizing certain drugs would cure a lot of our society’s ills. I say that as a person who very-much supports the idea of drug legalization, at least for pot and a few other limited drugs.

But as I watch the bath salts and fake weed controversies evolve, I wonder whether they don’t offer empirical evidence that our fantasy of legal drug Nirvana may be just that. Out of a list of reasons to legalize weed, two that jump out as the more common ones are that:

  1. Making drugs illegal doesn’t really stop people from doing them, and
  2. Illegal, unregulated drugs are inherently dangerous, because you don’t know what you’re buying

13WHAM’s Evan Dawson has a report up that shows that cracking down on the sale of synthetic, nominally legal intoxicants is having a significant impact in the Rochester area:

13WHAM News combined the number of local calls to poison control about bath salts with the number of emergency room visits related to bath salts. Here are the totals, month-by-month, which show a surge in bath salts, followed by a steep decline after the ban:

March 2012:  23
April 2012:  30
May 2012:  42
June 2012:  81
July 2012:  104
August 2012:  29
September 2012:  19
October 2012:  3

In a bubble, we had what seems to be a pretty significant problem by July, which seems to have been eliminated by October. It is impossible to tell whether this is just a fad that ran its course – perhaps sped by crackdowns – or a legitimate case for illegality as a preventative measure. Certainly, High Times and head shops have always been filled with “alternative” drugs. I can’t say I ever knew anyone who tried them. Certainly, things changed.

But the second argument – that legal drugs will be less harmful – is clearly in doubt as well. In fact, the only reason this story was ever a story is because people were getting hurt. Hurt by things sold over the counter, entirely legally.

American history prior to the passage of the 18th Amendment bares both these truths out: use of legal drugs from alcohol to cocaine and opiates was legion throughout the country. For a Rochester perspective on just how overrun our alcohol culture was in the mid-1800’s, read A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837. There is no credible measure by which our current levels of drug and alcohol abuse compare to those days. And because our 19th century drug and alcohol problem was as much as anything a manufacturing problem, there are numerous examples of less than ethical mixtures, including but not limited to using cocaine and opiates in just about every “curative” you could sell at the drug store.

Perhaps what this says is that “decriminalization” is less desirable than legalization – bringing illegal drugs under the same legal regime as alcohol. Anyway, just food for thought on a Thursday afternoon.

Synthetic marijuana – a recent trend popping up amongst drug users. This drug has grown in popularity thanks to its accessibility and scapegoat qualities. For those looking to get a high similar to marijuana, yet still be able to pass a drug test, synthetic marijuana is where they have turned. But smokers beware, synthetic marijuana is full of harmful chemicals, some of which may be toxic.

Labeled “not for human consumption” and sold as incense, synthetic marijuana, can be purchased at gas stations or adult stores. These so-called “incense” which can be known as ‘K2’, ‘Spice’ or various other street names contain a nasty mix of chemicals that when smoked, are said to produce similar sensations to THC – the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. However, little testing has been done on these chemicals, and not much is known regarding long-term effects or the impact of their toxicity.

Two of the common chemicals that remain in most strains or brands of synthetic marijuana are JWH-018 and CP 47,497. While these chemicals mimic the effects of THC, they are said to be 4-100x stronger and definitely more dangerous. Although extensive research has been done regarding marijuana, an all-natural herbal substance, very little is known about its more dangerous synthetic imitator.

Karen Pelc, a Health Education Coordinator from Rochester Institute of Technology specializing in Substance Abuse explains that these chemicals are all made in a lab and that “no one really knows the effects of this stuff yet.” She does however say that what usage she has experienced has proved to be dangerous to students. “RIT has hospitalized several students that have smoked the stuff – it’s nothing that anyone should be smoking” she warns. Many students have become violently ill, and most commonly she has seen vomiting as a symptom of smoking it.

She was very persistent in explaining how little is known about the effects, and reiterated that something labeled as “not for human consumption” probably shouldn’t be consumed by humans. Especially with what little testing has been done. What scares her is that she sees students “being their own guinea pigs” and leaving the testing to themselves.

Recently in New York, synthetic marijuana has been outlawed, and the other states are following the trend. While no definitive long-term research can prove the specific dangers of JWH-018 and CP 47,497 and other chemicals found in synthetic marijuana, it’s become pretty widely expected that none of it is exactly healthy. Pelc says in her experience most students will try it once or twice, and then not want to again after becoming ill.

Although the long-term effects are unknown, what we do know about synthetic marijuana is that it is not advisable to smoke. Just because something has so little research doesn’t mean the dangers aren’t there. More and more cases of users becoming ill are popping up, and it is likely when more research does come out it will tell us what we already know and what the label even tells us. Synthetic marijuana, it’s not for human consumption.