Labs Make New, Dangerous Synthetic Cannabinoid Drugs Faster Than We Can Ban Them

Samuel Banister, Stanford University; Iain S McGregor, University of Sydney, and Roy Gerona, University of California, San Francisco

XLR-11, PB-22, AB-FUBINACA, MAB-CHMINACA, 5F-AMB. These are the cryptic and sometimes unpronounceable names of the most dangerous drugs you’ve never heard of. They are responsible for kidney injury, psychosis, seizures, coma and death.

For instance, AB-FUBINACA was responsible for a spate of recent poisonings at Wesleyan University. And MAB-CHMINACA was associated with more than 100 hospitalizations in Baton Rouge. Neither of these drugs were known to the scientific community until late last year.

These drugs are synthetic cannabinoids – several of the hundreds that have been identified as new “designer drugs” in the past five years. More than 150 were reported in 2013 alone, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). And police, doctors, scientists and lawmakers are all struggling to identify these new drugs as they hit the streets.

What are synthetic cannabinoids?

Synthetic cannabinoids are molecules designed to mimic the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Like THC, these synthetic cannabinoids target the cannabinoid type 1 receptor (CB1R) in the brain, which is responsible for the psychoactive effects of THC in cannabis.

Although these products are sometimes called “synthetic cannabis” or “fake pot,” both terms are wrong and misleading. They are called cannabinoids not because they are like cannabis, but because they interact with cannabinoid receptors in the brain and elsewhere in the body.

These molecules look chemically different from those found in cannabis, and have very different effects in laboratory tests, and on their users, than actual cannabis does.

These synthetic drugs are manufactured in clandestine labs (mostly in China) for export around the globe. They are usually sprayed onto dry herbs for smoking, and sold inexpensively in foil packets with constantly changing brand names like Spice, K2, Black Mamba, Cloud Nine, Maui Wowie, Mr Nice Guy and countless others. There are literally hundreds of individual products that are known to law enforcement. The brands change as frequently as the drugs themselves.

Underground chemists tweak the structures of these molecules using tricks similar to those employed in the pharmaceutical industry. Unlike Big Pharma, where the goal is to create safer medicines, synthetic cannabinoid designers want to ensure their products evade prohibition but still get their customers “high.” As molecules are identified and banned, drug labs reformulate their products to stay a step ahead. Consumers can never be sure of exactly what drug (or combination of drugs) they are using.