For Weekly SurgeApril 17, 2013 

Let’s face it - there are times when the media is full of shit. To be honest, the issue is a double-edged sword; on one side the media is an essential tool for disseminating important information to the public - such as this week’s devastating Boston Marathon bombing - and to keep power structures in check. Then there’s the other side – the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality (again, we refer to the Boston terror strike), trying to keep the public guessing on what national atrocity or asteroid or animal sickness or North Korean nukes or predatory influence is going to sneak into the suburban dream and corrupt our kids.

In the last few years, we’ve seen a rising trend in stories about synthetic drugs or designer drugs. The height of this trend was when a synthetic product sold in head shops known as “bath salts” was linked to allegedly turning people into face-eating zombies. This led to headlines calling out phrases such as “Zombie Apocalypse.” It would appear “bath salts” has run its news cycle and synthetic weed has jumped on the carousel and we’re forced to sit and watch the wheels go round-and-round.

Recently, the roulette wheel came clicking to a stop at Socastee High School when eight students were arrested for two incidents involving smoking synthetic marijuana. Three of the students received medical treatment for adverse reactions to ingesting the substance. They range in ages from 16 to 18, charged with various offenses – four of them picked up a Public Disorderly Conduct charge. One was accused of Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor and three were tagged with Disturbing Schools. Plus, whatever the school decided to do with these kids, but according to a Horry County Schools spokesperson, the students are still enrolled in school and “the outcomes of their individual hearings are confidential.”

To this we have to ask, what the hell does “Disturbing Schools” mean? We went to S.C. Code of Laws and found SECTION 16-17-420 (Yes, it really is 420 which is appropriate because 4:20, the unofficial stoner’s holiday is Saturday - the 20th day of the fourth month - and the reason why we’re pointing our scope at synthetic marijuana.) The law states, “It shall be unlawful for any person willfully or unnecessarily to interfere with or to disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school or college in this State, to loiter about such school or college premises or to act in an obnoxious manner thereon.”

This would appear to be a catch-all for anything school officials would deem as “obnoxious.” And most teenagers are obnoxious most of the time. But if we look at the facts of the case, the substances in both incidents were tested at the State Law Enforcement Division and found to contain no banned ingredients.

This is not to say, these students should be allowed to toke up in t he hallway, but the punishment should at least fit the crime. If we lay out all the facts in a row and take a good hard look at the case, the “obnoxious manner” these young adults committed was smoking incense. But we digress because we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves, first we have to ask, WTF is Synthetic Marijuana?

Faking and baking?

To give you a fast-forward tutorial on what synthetic weed is, allow us to flashback for a science lesson – and believe it or not, the roots - or seeds - trace back to South Carolina.

When you smoke marijuana or cannabis, it activates receptors known as cannabinoids, also called THC or tetrahydrocannabinol. In 1984, an organic chemistry professor at Clemson University named John Huffman developed a series of 450 synthetic cannabinoids in order to research medications to aid the effects of multiple sclerosis, AIDS and chemotherapy.

Jump to the late 2000s, somehow Huffman’s product leaks onto the streets, becomes an alternative to weed, sold as herbal incense, labeled as not for human consumption and renamed K2 and Spice. It’s believed that both products were originally Huffman’s JWH-018 series because of its potency and easy preparation.

Huffman became an advocate of banning the substances and in 2010, the Drug Enforcement Administration classified JWH-018 and four other synthetic cannabinoids as Schedule I controlled substances and illegal in all 50 states. Eighteen states, including South Carolina, have either banned both bath salts and synthetic marijuana or have legislation on the agenda. Last July, President Barack Obama signed into law the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012.

S.C.'s D.H.E.C. basically re-enforced the D.E.A.'s reclassification of synthetic marijuana and Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill designed to toughen penalties on dealers, manufacturers and users.

“Unfortunately, the DEA can only ban specific psychoactive chemicals,” explains Bobby Wiggins Drug Prevention Specialist of Narconon International. “As soon as the banned compounds are no longer found in the product, vendors are right back in business. The problem is manufacturing labs are able to make tiny alterations in the molecular structure of the THC-like derivative compounds used, which allows them to replace banned chemicals with new ones that have similar, but possibly more potent properties that are outside DEA jurisdiction.”

But these products aren’t labeled as drugs and they can’t be detected on a standard drug test. They’re actually labeled as herbal incense. And these chemical compounds can be altered to maneuver around these laws and regulations. “Case in point, even as 30 states work to block the sale of K2, an incense product that led to psychosis severe enough to prompt a healthy 18-year-old athlete to shoot himself in the head, K3 arrived on the scene boasting that it was 100 percent free of banned chemicals and legal in all 50 states,” according to Narconon International.

And also according to a Narconon statement, “According to the U.S. Department of Justice, between March 2010 and December 2010, U.S. poison control centers received over 2,700 synthetic cannabinoid-related calls from 49 states. It’s too soon to say if long-term use of THC derivatives cause permanent harm, but so far there is evidence of damage to the lungs, brain, heart, and other vital organs.”

But there doesn’t seem to be any definitive conclusions about the effects of smoking synthetic weed - but let's face it, ingesting anything into your lungs isn't exactly healthy. “We still do not know all the ways Spice may affect human health or how toxic it may be, but one public health concern is that there may be harmful heavy metal residues in Spice mixtures. Without further analyses, it is difficult to determine whether this concern is justified,” according to drugabuse.gov.

Which begs the question: Isn’t this a big snipe hunt? A game of cat and mouse? Are we looking for demons in the dark, instead of simply turning on the light?

But what’s it like?

We talked to a quite a few stoners in the process of researching this article – some longtime friends, some new acquaintances. The responses to Spice varied from “making your head hot” to “too short of a high” to “pretty cool, but it made me think dumb thoughts” to “dangerous” to “a stupid waste of money.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says, “Spice users report experiences similar to those produced by marijuana—elevated mood, relaxation, and altered perception—and in some cases the effects are even stronger than those of marijuana. Some users report psychotic effects like extreme anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations.”

But if we wanted the truth, we should go to the source. So we went to a local head shop in search of their brand of cannabinoid. But when we tried to set up a meeting with the manager, he wouldn’t call us back. When we went down to the shop, none of the employees would make eye contact. They asked us to put away our notepad like it was badge. We were treated like Five-0, like a narc. After long minutes of awkward silences, one of the employees called the manager and we were told by the guy behind the counter, with the phone still to his ear, “He says he ain’t trying to be in no paper.”

Even when we explained that we ain’t trying to pick no sides. After we said we’re a fan of the underdog local businesses just trying to survive in a shitty economy. After we explained that if anything we’re here to try and keep common sense in check. After all that, we promptly received the back of their heads as everyone in the shop turned away.

So now what? We go in search of the director of the Grand Strand’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) – the defenders of all things weed-related, that’s what. Brandon Plumley, who started the local NORML chapter, is an Army veteran. Plumley suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and after being prescribed every chemical cocktail under the sun to deal with it, he says, “I switched to marijuana and it immediately helped with the anxiety, the sleep disorders, the pain, the depression. My appetite came back.”

In 2010, Plumley started the local chapter of NORML, serving as the executive director for two years until September, when he turned it over to the Columbia chapter so he could return to his native West Virginia and attend school on the G.I. Bill. But while he was here, he totally swung his support for his new best friend, cannabis, when he took a job at Conway’s head shop, the Puff Shack.

“It’s all about the marketing. Every smoke shop has their synthetic brand. Ours was the cannabinoid, AM 2201. We called it ‘Puff.’ It was the safest type we could find,” he says about the packaging and branding of Spice. “We used grain alcohol to bond it with a leaf, usually marshmallow leaves. It’s called herbal incense, but it’ll get you high.”

After a pause, Plumley says, “I wasn’t a big fan. I’m more a traditionalist. I like the real thing.” Plumley goes on to explain: “There are synthetics for everything, speed and hallucinogens. Molly’s Plant Food for instance is MDMA or ecstasy. There’s 25-I which is synthetic acid.”

The “25-I” Plumley refers to is a synthetic compound known as 25I-NBOMe, which is a substitute psychedelic. When asked about “bath salts,” Plumley says, “They’re like coke and meth, sold in head shops and gas stations. You have to be cautious with this stuff. When I worked at the Puff Shack, we didn’t want anyone to die or get hurt from anything we sold. We wanted our customers coming back, so we threw out all the bath salts when I was there.”

There’s the self-regulating Libertarian attitude we’ve come to admire in our stoner/activists, the mentality that legalizing weed is a greater good for the community. This mindset pervaded in the Libertarian Party before it was high-jacked by conspiracy theorists. That’s not to say the Stoner Party doesn’t have its fair share of conspiracy theorists.

And this leads us back to the barbarians at the gate, local, state and federal governments closing in to raid the Spice racks.

So what are you going to do about it?

Let’s tally up some of the characters we are seeing in our news. In Socastee, we have the “obnoxious” teens roaming high school halls burning herbal incense. In Surfside Beach, we have a vandal spray-painting police cars and telling the cops, synthetic marijuana made him do it. In Pawleys Island, a litterer is pulled over, 26 bags of alleged heroin are found and in the same breath, we are also told about one bag believed to be synthetic marijuana.

Local news outlets are reporting on letters sent by anonymous mothers about Spice ruining their child’s life. Counselors at Shoreline Behavioral Services in Conway are being quoted about patients claiming they smoked synthetic weed. Everyone is telling us it’s harmful, but no one knows how or how damaging it can be and it all begins to sound like white noise conjecture and scare tactics.

It’s no wonder, Surfside Beach Town Council has sharpened its pitchforks and prepped its torches. The self-described “family beach” announced a focus-group to work on a “designer drug” ordinance on Feb. 19.

We obtained the meeting minutes of a council meeting a week later, where residents from in and around Surfside Beach came to hop on the propaganda train, using rousing language such as, “Concerned parents” and “I hope this community will take a stand.”

And take a stand they did. Council member Beth Kohlmann gave a presentation where statistics about poison control calls and ER admittance were cited. She described how cannabinoids are delivered and produced in back rooms and it all sounds so shady. She calls them, “Deadly,” and uses phrases like, “No regulation” and “altering people’s brains.” She brought in a visual display of drug paraphernalia. She concluded by referring to it as “nasty” and adds they’re working towards “a great resolution.”

And then, Mayor Doug Samples began his speech with, “We know that we’re tilting, if you will, at windmills.” For those of you not familiar with the saying, it’s an idiom that refers to fighting against imaginary enemies. He goes on to say, “If you allow a cancer to exist in your town, it will grow. We are not gonna allow that. This stuff is legal, and it’s about the money. But it’s also about human lives and dignity and the children who I watch outside the store.”

He makes it sound as if these smoke shop owners are profiteers of death and destruction, preying on our young. It’s clearly marked on the door that individuals younger than the age of 18 are prohibited. And Samples makes these statements while he sits in a building literally surrounded by liquor stores. He concludes with praises for local media for their reporting on the issue, questions a connection of synthetic drugs to a girl’s death last August and makes a call to arms to clean the streets of “legal substances…being marketed and pushed to our kids.”

On March 11, Surfside Beach proposed a Synthetic Drug Ordinance which intends to ban long lists of specifically-named products, including bath salts and synthetic weed among others. Once the proposal is approved by the town’s attorneys, it will be voted on by the council.

Curiously, the one thing missing from the meeting is the same thing missing from this article, the proponents of synthetic marijuana.

But we did find comments from Alex Black, manager at Up in Smoke in Surfside Beach, made about the issue on March 11, to The Sun News. That seems to be the date this boulder started gaining speed downhill. He said, “The store will comply,” if an ordinance was passed.

And for those who have never been in a smoke shop, they’re not filled with Spice and bath salts. These products take up very little space, behind a glass case. The majority of these stores are devoted to accoutrements for the pot-smoking traditionalist - although, they’re labeled “For tobacco use.” This leads us to our last point.

The Real Problem

There is a bright side in this mess. While municipal council members and counselors and police officers and mayors and scientists are demonizing synthetic weed, chasing a paper tiger, it just makes the real tigers look all the more majestic.

In 1988, Judge Francis Young, former chief administrative law judge at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said, “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.”

It begs the question – what are we waiting for? Eighteen states have legalized medical marijuana and two have legalized marijuana for recreational use. People who once looked at marijuana as a gateway drug are beginning to see that association only exists because weed is mostly sold by illegal drug dealers. If you have to buy an organic dried flower illegally, from someone who also sells other chemically-made drugs, how long does it take before your adventurous spirit says, “I’ll take one of those, too?”

Let’s not delude ourselves, we live in a world where moods and sex-lives and sleep and appetite are regulated by drugs and organic alternatives we deem as legal and essential. We live in a country that’s had a turn at prohibition, opting to give citizens a choice and allowing individuals to self-regulate and apply sanctions to those who decide to misuse or impede on others’ rights when they partake in recreational and prescription drugs.

Yes, our local townships, our state and federal governments are chasing paper tigers. Spice would be rendered harmless if states would make strides in decriminalizing marijuana. There has to be advocates and lobbyists making noise. We can hide behind pretense and faulty products on one side or Zombie headlines and protecting children from store owners on the other. Or we can all work toward legalizing a product that aids the medical field, would create jobs in an agricultural state and can stand the scrutiny of government regulation.

Plus, it may just help everyone chill out a little bit.

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