You may have heard a bit on your local news or perhaps read a piece in your local paper about quasi-legal synthetic marijuana products being sold in your local head shop as "incense". They come under a variety of brand names of which Spice and K2 may be most familiar. Very likely, the media bit you have seen was from some local politician or other trying to make some political hay over his or her concerns that this incense is ruining the lives of the constituency. All that hysteria for incense? Something else must be afoot, you are thinking...and you are quite correct.
Abel Pharmboy had a very good description of the reason people are willing to pay $60 (USD) for about 3 grams of plant material.
The compound most commonly found in these products is a chemical first synthesized by the well-known Clemson University organic chemist, Prof John W Huffman: the eponymous JWH-018. Another compound, found in Spice products sold in Germany, is an analog of CP-47,497, a cannabinoid developed by Pfizer over 20 years ago.
Known as (1-pentyl-3-(1-naphthoyl)indole), or the more proper IUPAC name of Naphthalen-1-yl-(1-pentylindol-3-yl)methanone, JWH-018 is one of over 100 indoles, pyrroles, and indenes synthesized by the Huffman laboratory to develop cannabimimetics, drugs that mimic the effect of cannabinoids such as THC.
Well, yes, that would make sense, wouldn't it? Not so expensive looking if it gets you high in a similar way as marijuana, eh?
I had a post in which I discussed a Case Report of dependence on the Spice Gold product and remarked that there were similarities with reports on cannabis dependence (start here for an intro). There were also two excellent posts from our good blog friend leigh who covered the structure of JwH-018 and efficacy and potency differences between a full agonist (such as JWH-018) and a partial agonist (such as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol). The second post concludes, in part, as follows:
1. JWH-018 is more potent than THC. Lower concentrations of drug will produce notable effects with JWH-018 than with THC.
2. JWH-018 is more efficacious than THC. The maximal effect of JWH-018 is greater than that of THC in every physiological measure that’s been captured to date.
3. The points I bring up in 1 and 2 DO NOT mean that JWH-018 is like THC, but “better” or “stronger” or any other comparator. The considerably different pharmacological properties of these two drugs causes them to have (perhaps related but) distinct effect profiles.
There is a lot we still don't know about how full cannabinoid agonists may work when used in these types of so-called incense products. Lots of questions about the specific compounds being used, the possible mixture of them, the doses being administered, bioavailability of the drug when taken by various routes of administration (smoked, eaten, etc) and other issues.
We also don't know all that much about the epidemiology yet. This is too recent of a phenomenon to have good wide-spectrum data yet- it probably takes two years minimum to add it to one of the major surveys like the Monitoring the Future project (in the US) and to get the first year's data published. What I can tell you is that there is a tremendous search-engine interest. Abel Pharmboy and I have both remarked that we've never experienced such sustained Google search traffic on any other post*.
I can offer another anecdote today, and I'd invite my readers to do a little research as well. My story started a couple of months back when I was buying cigars as a present for a family member. The cigar shop, which I will note does a thriving business in hookahs and is not particularly respectable looking, did not have any of the synthetic marijuana products. I asked about this and the proprietor got semi-huffy about it and insisted they would never carry these items. Well, lo and behold, I revisited the cigar shop recently and the front case was heavily laden with suspiciously expensive incense. (There was also some salvia product in the case. One of these days I have to get back around to talking about that particular recreational drug.)
One product, Spice Spirit Gold, seemed reasonably typical of the type. The package says that it contents "include" the following (all definitions from Wikipedia).
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is an herbaceous perennial plant in the mint family, Lamiaceae. Other common names include Throw-wort, Lion's Ear, and Lion's Tail. The latter two are also common names for Leonotis leonurus. Originally from Central Asia it is now found worldwide, spread largely due to its use as a herbal remedy.
Pedicularis canadensis is a flowering plant in the family Orobanchaceae (Broomrape). It is closely related to Figwort. P. canadensis is also known under the names "Wood betony" and "Canada lousewort".
Scutellaria lateriflora, also known as Blue Skullcap, Hoodwort, Virginian Skullcap, Mad-dog Skullcap is a hardy perennial herb native to North America. It is a member of the mint family.
Althaea officinalis (Marshmallow, Marsh Mallow, or Common Marshmallow) is a species Indigenous to Africa, which is used as a medicinal plant and ornamental plant.
Rosa × damascena, more commonly known as the Damask rose or simply as "Damask", or sometimes as the Rose of Castile, is a rose hybrid, derived from Rosa gallica and Rosa moschata (Huxley 1992). Further DNA analysis has shown that a third species, Rosa fedtschenkoana, is associated with the Damask rose.
The flowers are renowned for their fine fragrance, and are commercially harvested for rose oil (either "rose otto" or "rose absolute") used in perfumery and to make rose water and "rose concrete".
Vanilla planifolia is a species of vanilla orchid. It is native to Mexico, and is one of the primary sources for vanilla flavouring, due to its high vanillin content. Common names are Flat-leaved Vanilla, Tahitian Vanilla (for the Pacific stock formerly thought to be a distinct species), and West Indian Vanilla (also used for the Pompona Vanilla, V. pompona).
I've been curious as to what sorts of plants were being used. Now I know at least a subset. It was also fairly interesting to see that the package makes it clear that they are not divulging all of the ingredients! The encircled 18 on the front probably signifies sale only to those 18 years of age and above? Just guessing on that one.
What else? Well, it was beyond fascinating to see the notice on the back in several languages that this product was "Not for Sale in the US". You know, seeing as how I found this stuff on sale in the USA, and all.