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Synthetic Cannabinoids: An Introduction

July 8, 2012

1. History, 2. Law, 4. Arrest

I happily walked around thinking “cannabinoids” was pronounced similar to “cannabis.”  T’isn’t.  The emphasis is on the second syllable – NAB.  Can-NAB-i-noids.  Glad we got that out of the way.

Here’s the drill … Marijuana’s active ingredient is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol.  “THC” to those who like shorthand.  THC is a cannabinoid-receptor agonist.  Stated differently, THC works with the receptor – therefore an agonist.  An antagonist, the opposite, works against it.  Think of it this way.  You have a large bowl with a screen on top.  You drop variously sized balls onto the screen.  Some balls are small enough to pass through the holes in the screen; other balls are too large – they sit on top of the screen.  Agonists pass through; antagonists rest on top.  The importance of the later is that antagonists will clog the screen, meaning approaching agonists cannot enter.

Next, what is a receptor?  It’s something in your body that reacts when excited – when an agonist enters it.  We discovered the cannabinoid receptors when we were studying marijuana.  If we did this research when we were studying chocolate (which has within it a cannabinoid receptor agonist no different (functionally) than THC), these entities could have been called Hershey receptors.

There are multiple cannabinoid receptors in the body.  The first one is called, oddly enough (where do they come up with this stuff?) Cannabinoid Receptor 1, or CB1 for short.  The next is CB2.  People who study these things say they have a good enough handle on CB3 to call it that, but not enough to go any further than the name.  These people also believe that a few other CB’s are out there – no names yet.  Odds are they’ll be CB4, CB5, and CB6, but that’s a separate story.

The thing with THC is that it acts as an agonist for every CB receptor.  Now, CB1 is in the brain.  An agonist enters it when someone flares up a doobie, and the person gets high.  There’s another class of  receptors, btw, that works with opiates.  You know that tryptophan in your Thanksgiving turkey?  It hits the brain in the same pathways as heroin.  No wonder they sell turkeys that weigh 30 pounds or more – it’s a beautiful thing … demand creates supply.

The CB2 receptor is in your spleen and immune cells.  Since weed hits CB1 and CB2, you’re getting high (wasting your life) and healthy (so you can waste your life for a longer period).

And it is this multiple hit that intrigues research scientists.  So they’ve created what the street calls “fake weed.”  That’s a misunderstanding, but, hey, the people saying it are high so we have to cut them a break.  What the scientists have actually created are research compounds.  John W. Huffman, for example, created JWH-018.  This compound replicates the actions of THC in the body.  It was created, in part, so that further research can be done to figure out how to stop the CB1 agonist interaction but maintain the CB2 agonist interaction.  The result could be a drug that maintains the health benefits of weed without getting the subject high.  But for now, JWH-018 does it all.  And very well, if you’ll accept that terminology.  The agonist impact on CB1 buries that of THC – people get very, very high.

The issue on the streets with synthetic cannabinoids can be traced to the US Constitution.  Within that seminal document is the right of inventors to protect their intellectual property.  Dr. Huffman merrily patented JWH-018.  And the Chinese, never one to miss an opportunity at deviant revenue or to steal someone else’s invention, began producing the compound en masse.  When JWH-018 started to show up in America, certain folks started to gather weeds and sticks, apply a liquid solution laced with the stuff, then toasted the mixture in bongs and Zig-Zags.

The problem is that stoners have rarely been accused of thinking through their stoning activities.  They were treating the JWH-018 mixture as if it were Panama Red or Humboldt Blue.  Wrong.  One joint of the JWH-018 mixture has the same impact on the brain as smoking 40 joints of the best weed ever available.  The result has been people running naked through the streets then dry humping maple trees while gnawing on some poor puppy.  Whew, dude, that’s no way to go through life.

There are many research compounds similar in their functional impact on the body to JWH-018.  Some are compounds onto themselves – structurally different from one another.  Other compounds are analogues of one another – add or remove an atom here, substitute a ring there.  The lawmakers are in a constant battle to keep up with the science … because the science has left the research labs and entered the marketplace.  There is so much money on the table that manufacturers have created their own labs.

That’s the baseline.  Lots more to discuss on the topic later …

Yes, in case you’re wondering, bath salts followed the same path from lab to street – but those things are just stupid.  They rank right up there with the meth.  Ever see those before and after pictures of meth heads?  Best of luck with that.  Maybe they can get a job in Detroit.

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About Clyde

Clyde is the lead attorney in the firm. Licensed to practice in 1993, he's also taught Constitutional and Criminal Law for several years at a private university, primarily at the Master's level.

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