Experts decry synthetic pot: 'Much worse than marijuana'

Some of the synthetic marijuana products sold at the Last Place on Earth contain a chemical that may be illegal to sell and possess, according to experts who reviewed an analysis of the drugs' ingredients -- though the store's owner says the ban ...

Synthetic Marijuana
Samantha McKinney, 45, smokes a pipe of synthetic marijuana in Lake Place Park recently. She says the drug helps relieve her of an anxiety condition, but she acknowledges that some of her friends have had bad reactions to it. (Bob King /

Some of the synthetic marijuana products sold at the Last Place on Earth contain a chemical that may be illegal to sell and possess, according to experts who reviewed an analysis of the drugs' ingredients -- though the store's owner says the ban is too vague and has challenged it in court.

The synthetic drugs -- sold under the names No Name, Red Bull, Smokin' Camel Kush and Hypnotiq -- are probably far stronger than natural marijuana and can lead to serious health problems, said John Huffman, the Clemson University organic chemist who created synthetic marijuana.

The News Tribune bought four samples of the downtown Duluth head shop's most popular brands and had the drugs analyzed by the Minneapolis-based MedTox Laboratories.

All four contained what was identified as "AM-2201," which is known as an analog of a banned compound. As a way to avoid chemical compounds that have been specifically banned by state and federal lawmakers, synthetic drug-makers tweak their formulas to create the analogs.

Minnesota lawmakers banned analogs this year.


"AM-2201 is an obvious analog," said Cody Wiberg, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy.

Dr. Kendall Wallace, the interim head of the University of Minnesota Duluth Medical School's Department of Biomedical Sciences, also reviewed the findings and agreed that AM-2201 is an analog of a banned compound.

Last Place on Earth owner Jim Carlson said he has filed a legal challenge on analogs, saying the law banning their sale is "too vague." He said he will continue to sell the synthetics until his lawsuit is resolved.

"We don't believe in their analog law," he said.

The law defines analogs as chemicals that can have "stimulant, depressant or hallucinogenic effect on the central nervous system."

"How can that even be a law?" Carlson said. "Alcohol is a depressant. Coffee is a stimulant. Coca-Cola is a stimulant. Does that mean we should ban that?"

Gregory Janis, MedTox's scientific director, said the chance of Last Place on Earth being prosecuted for selling analogs is slim.

Prosecutors "are often reluctant to prosecute them," Janis said, "because they end up in a position where they have to prove to a jury that two compounds are chemically similar. Whereas, most of the juries are not chemistry experts, and trying to walk them through structures, chemical structures and the concept of an analog is a difficult task. As a result of that, they will stay on cases that are easier to win."


Jon Holets, an assistant St. Louis County attorney, said the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is reviewing whether AM-2201 qualifies as an analog. "If it is an analog, it certainly is illegal to possess or sell," he said.

From paranoia to death

The specific chemicals found in the drugs sold by the Last Place on Earth have never been studied for their effects on humans, experts say, explaining why they could not comment on how people who use them would be affected.

Researchers do know that, in general, synthetics are more potent and hit the brain more selectively than does actual marijuana.

"And that's all we know," said Dr. David Shurtleff, the acting deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "That's the scary part of this: People are using this drug, which has not been tested for toxicity, never been tested in humans. There has been no safety testing."

Anecdotally, there have been reports locally and across the country of synthetic drug users reporting to poison control centers and emergency rooms with problems including paranoid behavior, hallucinations, vomiting, seizures, racing heartbeats and death.

Samantha McKinney, 45, who said she's been using synthetic drugs purchased from the Last Place on Earth for the last several months to treat anxiety and glaucoma, has seen those problems firsthand, saying she has taken several friends to the emergency room because of it.

"I've seen people repeatedly OD on it, people who get so incoherent they can't even speak," McKinney said. "People's heart rate drops, sometimes it races, sometimes it's irregular, sometimes people pass out, vomit. People will go into this catatonic state."


Despite that, McKinney said she'll continue to use synthetics because they're legal and safer to buy than from a drug dealer.

One of the most recent studies on synthetic marijuana, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, looked at 10 patients admitted to a naval medical center who claimed to have used synthetic marijuana. Later, they were admitted to a psychiatric ward for signs of psychosis, paranoia and erratic behavior.

Those symptoms lasted from a few days to several months, said Dr. Donald Hurst, one of the authors of the study.

"Some of the users had a predisposition to psychosis, so this drug pushed them over the edge," he said.

Hurst said that synthetics are about 100 to 300 times stronger than marijuana, but it takes users an average of 20 to 30 minutes longer to get high.

"Novices will keep hitting the substance, waiting for it to take effect, and they'll keep taking more and more," Hurst said. "That's why they're ODing."

'Rolling the dice'

Even less is known about the drugs' long-term health effects, which makes their use dangerous, Shurtleff said. And the analogs of the banned synthetics may be even more dangerous.


"Now you're really rolling the dice," he said. "Now you have no data, and people are really flying in the dark. This is really serious, dangerous stuff. You're tweaking a compound that could already be extremely toxic."

The creator of synthetic marijuana agrees.

John Huffman developed the chemicals in his college laboratory in an attempt to understand the relationship between drugs and the brain receptors they target.

"These receptors don't exist so that people can smoke marijuana and get high," Huffman said in an e-mailed statement. "They play a role in regulating appetite, nausea, mood, pain and inflammation. They may be involved in the development of conditions such as osteoporosis, liver disease and some kinds of cancer."

Somewhere along the way, Huffman's chemical compounds were copied by street chemists and sprayed on dried plant material to create synthetic marijuana, and a boom began that started about three years ago. Huffman's compounds were the ones used in K2, which the Last Place on Earth sold last year before it was banned.

Huffman said the synthetics are more dangerous than natural marijuana and says they shouldn't be used as recreational drugs.

"The synthetic compounds are much more potent and have side-effects that are very different from marijuana. In particular, the synthetics raise blood pressure and have long-lasting psychotropic effects," he said. "These are all much worse than marijuana."

Last Place owner Carlson acknowledges the drugs he sells can be dangerous, but he said that's only when they're abused and not used in moderation.


He said synthetic marijuana is safer than alcohol or cigarettes.

"I sell cigarettes, and those kill millions of people a year," he said. "Nobody says let's ban drinking."

Though Carlson says he's making several million dollars selling the synthetics, he said money isn't the reason he'll continue to do it. He vowed to spend "every penny, every dollar I make to keep this product legal."

"For the people that have to do something," Carlson said, "everybody says this is the least evil of anything on the planet -- except for marijuana, but that's illegal."

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