If you have not heard about the risks of marginally-legal, synthetic marijuana products, a NBC Today Show piece this week certainly raised national awareness of these products sold online, in convenience stores, and smoke shops. (Note: the video autoplays after clicking the hyperlink.)
On June 14 a 19-year-old northern Illinois man named Max Dobner crashed into a two-story home at a high rate of speed. The family living there was out but a baby had been napping an hour earlier in the room where the car entered.
According to Paul Biasco at the Daily Herald:
Police said Dobner was speeding in a 1999 Chrysler Cirrus east on Mooseheart Road, blew through a stop sign at the T-intersection at Route 31 and was sent airborne when the four-door struck a retaining wall. The vehicle flew about 15 feet in the air over an 80-foot stretch before hitting a tree and then the home, Zies said.
“The car hit with such force the motor came dislodged from the vehicle and went in through two more rooms and ended up in a bedroom in the back of the house,” [North Aurora Fire District Capt. Todd] Zies said. “It wiped out four rooms: a living room, bedroom, bathroom and another bedroom on the other side.”
This photo gallery at the Daily Herald shows the scene of the accident.
Charles Menchaca of the Batavia Patch reported this week that in the intervening month since the accident, a potential reason for this inexplicable single-car accident has emerged: Max’s brother reported speaking to him about having smoked a legal “potpourri” product called iAroma about an hour-and-a-half prior to the accident.
Search engine hits to one of our introductory posts here and to those of our neuroscience colleague DrugMonkey let us know that many of you are looking for information about these products. Therefore, I thought I’d put together an “explainer” for anyone interested in this topic regardless of whether they have a scientific background. Please let me know if this helps you understand – if anything is unclear, please leave a message in the comments below and I’ll follow-up.
For more technical information written by us and several of our neuropharmacology research colleagues, scroll to the bottom of this post.
Synthetic marijuana: where did it come from?
Before I suggest background reading, let’s just chat about the basics behind these so-called potpourri or incense products, also known as “legal highs.”
Many mind-altering substances come from my specialized branch of the study of drug action: natural products pharmacology and pharmacognosy. Natural “products” doesn’t refer to retail products but rather chemicals made by plants, mushrooms, microorganisms, and other creatures of land and sea. I study this field because several anticancer drugs have come from nature. However, natural products also include addictive drugs such as cocaine and morphine and drugs that cause hallucinations such as psilocybin from certain mushrooms.
Chemists in universities, research institutes, and drug companies often make chemical modifications to these natural compounds to try and understand how they work. When naturally-occurring intoxicants are outlawed, clandestine chemists also get into the act for a different reason and invariably begin to synthesize compounds that are similar chemically and/or have similar effects in the brain.
Incense and potpourri products largely contain chemicals that are meant to act like the active chemicals in marijuana but are either still legal or not easily detected. The most popular of these chemicals comes from work begun 15 years ago by a now-retired chemist from Clemson University, Dr. John W. Huffman. Dr. Huffman, whose initials JWH are the prefix for these drugs (i.e., JWH-018), was trying to determine the basic chemical structure required for marijuana-like actions.
Years after his group published the chemical structures and methods to synthesize these compounds, these compounds began appearing in Europe in herbal products that could be smoked like marijuana. The selling point of these products was that they were legal and their psychoactive constituents could not be detected by conventional urinary drug screening.
After these products were outlawed in many European countries, they began appearing in the United States under names like K2, Spice, Black Mamba, Kush, and, now, iAroma or Iaroma. Because the products were sprayed with mind-altering chemicals that were not explicitly outlawed, these products could be freely sold without fear of prosecution. Makers and sellers of these products tried further to get around liability with these products by labeling them as potpourri or incense and indicating that they were not intended for internal human use. Nevertheless, it was clear that these products were intended to be smoked.
More intense, disturbing than the real stuff
However, many of the chemicals in these products have much more intense effects than those present in marijuana. In several hundred comments that I’ve accumulated at my blogs over the last two years, many users have reported that these products produce effects that are quite unpleasant and include racing heartbeat, seizures, and intense feelings of paranoia. Here – 1 and 2 – are two sample comments I received last November. Some of these effects are similar to smoking large amounts and/or very high-grade marijuana. However, intense paranoia and panic occur with these products at relatively low doses because they differ in how they influence brain receptors that bind marijuana compounds.
When these disturbing effects were experienced by individuals with little experience taking intoxicants, poison control centers around the US being reporting a large number of emergency room visits associated with the incense and potpourri compounds.
How these effects are relevant to the death of Max Dobner remain to be shown as toxicology tests are ongoing to determine if he had such chemicals in his bloodstream at the time of the accident. We also have no idea what thoughts may have been going through his head at the time he blew through an intersection across a wall and tree into a house. Even if paranoid delusions were not behind this accident, he could have easily had a heart attack or debilitating seizure.
As a result individual municipalities and states began to outlaw these products and the chemicals present in them. Late last year the US Drug Enforcement Agency issued a rule that temporarily placed five of these chemicals on “Schedule I,” the list of drugs made illegal because they have high addictive potential and no known medical use.
Illegal but tough to enforce
However, the explicitly outlawed chemicals could be modified by small changes in the laboratory to be legal but still have similar intoxicating effects. The jury is out on whether these second-generation incense products are really legal. State legislation, particularly here in North Carolina (where I live), has been so broad as to outlaw hundreds if not thousands of related compounds that may not have even yet been made. The US DEA even has rules that outlaw compounds that are chemically-related to those that have been outlawed but how this provision is enforced is inconsistent and unclear.
So, in reality these products are still widely sold. State and federal chemical analysis laboratories have been swamped with their own enforcement work, particularly in methamphetamine prosecutions, and budget cuts nationwide have further taxed already-overextended enforcement laboratories.
As a result iAroma and other similar products continue to be sold to people like Max Dobner and his friends. Little can be done to stop such sales other than to educate people of the risks of smoking these products.
(I would add though that the publicity surrounding the Max Dobner case has influenced online sales of iAroma: while potpourriandincense.com still appears to sell it, two other sites that showed up on my first Google search page come back with “Product not found!” or “0 results matching your criteria.”)
To educate and honor
To honor Max’s memory and educate others, Max’s mother Karen has established the To the Maximus! Foundation and website:
On June 14, 2011, Max Dobner’s mom, Karen, got the call that no mom wants to get. The mother of three young men was at a friend’s house when the shattering, life-altering message arrived:
Your son was in an accident, and he did not survive.
Max, usually a cautious and responsible person, had entered a local tobacco shop with a friend. There they purchased a legal substance, a synthetic drug marketed and sold as potpourri but smoked by teens. The substance can cause frightening results, including rapid heartbeats, paranoid panic attacks, and hallucinations. Shortly after using this substance, Max got into a car, drove at speeds approaching 100 mph, and ultimately barreled through an intersection, hit a wall, went airborne, and crashed into a house. Max suffered a blunt force trauma to the head and died, leaving behind a devastated family, large circle of friends, and bright future. Max had hoped to study psychology and make a positive impact on the world around him, continuing his service to others.
Max’s family and friends began building a much-wider network of people who are committed to being sure that this tragedy does not befall another family. Through education and a commitment to legislative efforts, they hope that Max’s death and the deaths of other teens who have used synthetic drugs will be the last of these horrific tragedies.
Reflection as a parent*
My personal opinion about folks using psychoactive substances is that simply outlawing them does little to influence use. The simple fact that alcohol and tobacco remain legal in the majority of countries results in a hypocrisy that is hard to overcome when telling kids they can’t smoke pot or take hallucinogens or empathogens.
So while I don’t condone breaking any laws, I would tell my own daughter when she gets older that there are wiser choices than others when considering experimentation with mind-altering substances. These synthetic marijuana products are absolutely not one of the wise ones.
My heart goes out to the Dobner family and friends in the aftermath of their tragic loss.
*The preceding section constitutes my personal opinion and does not reflect my those of my university employer, funding agencies, or the host of this blog, the American Chemical Society’s Chemical & Engineering News
For those looking for more detailed scientific information on synthetic marijuana products and the chemicals present in them, I would suggest that you read:
JWH-018, Spice, and Me by British pharmacology graduate Synchronium who used to sell these products at his Coffeesh0p online store (Note: Coffesh0p does not ship products to the US and the link is only provided here for information. These products were sold in Europe several years before they became popular in the US and Synchronium has been an excellent source of information on the usage trends and risks of these products)
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