- 27 Jan 09
Backed by apparently damning new scientific findings, there is a move across Europe to outlaw ‘Spice’ and other legal smokes. Will this bring an end to the booming legal high industry – or encourage smokers to look further afield for their chemical buzz?
Scientists reckon they have cracked the secret behind the phenomenal success of “Spice” and other legal smoking blends.
As it turns out, there’s a good reason why the cannabis-like herbal ‘incense’ feels like the read thing: it contains synthetic cannabinoids. The chemical analogues were detected by German and Austrian scientists tasked with cracking the secret of the active ingredients which have proved so popular with the young and the adventurous. The growth of the herbal high industry has taken even manufacturers by surprise, leading to ongoing shortages and delays in filling orders.
The popularity of the products is no longer inexplicable, then. The cannabis-type effects are caused by a range of chemicals, including JWH-018, JWH-073 and various other JWH analogues, along with chemicals from other alphabetical families.
Following the release of limited lab results, the Austrian government announced an immediate ban on a number of products, including the entire Spice range: Smoke, Yucatan Fire, Sence and several Austrian products containing the offending analogues. The German and Polish governments have followed suit, and it seems likely that a Europe-wide prohibition will be brought into force.
Though the Austrian authorities cited health concerns in prohibiting Spice and its chemical cousins, little is known about the health profile of the substances in question. Sources have suggested that some medical profiling was carried out, but to date Hot Press has been unable to obtain copies of the studies. In any case, the products were marked ‘not for human consumption’ precisely because they had not been put through the costly tests normally applied to medically active products.
Though the ban was sudden, it was not unexpected. The German authorities had already raided head shops selling Spice, maintaining that it was illegal. In the UK, meanwhile, the Medicines Board wrote to vendors of Spice and other products ordering them to desist from selling the medically active product. While some distributors were cowed by the letters, which threatened legal action, producers intended to rely on the proposition that their products were not for human consumption and were sold as incense.
The response of the authorities in Austria, Germany and Poland is hardly surprising, but it will not spell the end of the legal high industry. If synthetic cannabinoids are out, stronger extractions of other herbs or inclusion of other analogue families might be in instead.
It seems that Spice, Smoke and the rest are coming towards the end of the road. But this is only the beginning of a new chapter in our relationship with mind-altering drugs. We already have synthetic drugs to make us more productive and alert: why not drugs to make us more creative or less anxious? The first generation of herbal smokeables masquerading as incense is fairly crude, but it nonetheless points to a future where every conceivable variety of drug trip is available, tweaked to your total chemical satisfaction.
An organic form of this process has been underway within the cannabis genetics industry for almost five decades; it has yielded several thousands different varieties of weed. That is a fraction of the potential number of lab designed cannabis combinations. With a better knowledge of the particular cannabinoids and their effects, technicians could circumvent the trial and error of breeding and simply create a chemical concoction with the desired balance. Several pharmaceutical companies are applying this process to harness the pain-killing properties of cannabis.
This issue has only recently appeared on the mainstream radar, with The Economist magazine leading a defence of cognitive enhancement drugs. Some experts, such as Trinity College criminologist Paul O’Mahony, believe that the avalanche of designer drugs will bury the drug war for good. “Scientific advances will mean all sorts of mood altering drugs will become available and will force people and governments to address the basic moral issues in a much more grounded and realistic way,” O’Mahony speculates, suggesting that the current pace of change suggests that this scenario is within a decade or two.
As it stands, the guinea pig factor is high and the transparency factor non-existent. Legal high manufacturers are going to ever-greater lengths to keep their ingredients a secret from the authorities. It is now standard industry practice to issue a partial list of ingredients; some decline to list any ingredients whatsoever. Naturally, all the punters care about is whether it works.
This will be starkly illustrated over the coming months, as BZP products are replaced by next generation products whose active ingredients have not been publicly disclosed. If the pills work, the punters will pop them. Whether it’s an MDMA analogue or an LSD analogue or even an animal worming agent, once it gets you stoned in one way or another, it will always have its fans.
There are millions of potential candidates for the next batch of legal highs, and the stage is set for a chemical car chase through the analogues. When it comes to getting high, the generational gulf is about to experience chemical cleavage on a scale which will eclipse the psychedelic revolution of the ‘60s. While the police and the prohibitionists give chase, the message being sent to mystery incense producers by stoned spectators is pretty clear: keep the car running.