“Synthetic marijuana” is a broad term that’s used by much of the media to describe plant material sprayed with any number of lab-derived chemicals. These chemicals may be intended to mimic the effect of plant-based cannabinoids on the brain; they also may not be.
The similarities end there. The products, commonly sold under brand names like K2 or Spice (or “potpourri”) at head shops, gas stations and bodegas, is known to cause serious health complications, including death.
Plant-based cannabis, which has known health benefits, has never resulted in a known fatal overdose. Natural marijuana is legal for medical or recreational use in more than half of the United States. Synthetic cannabinoid products are universally banned.
Marijuana use is easily captured by urine and blood tests. Synthetic marijuana is not detected by these tests, making it popular among prisoners, members of the military and other people for whom marijuana use is a significant risk thanks to the nation’s drug laws—which in this way perversely encourage synthetic marijuana use.
About the only similarity between so-called “synthetic marijuana” and cannabis is that people smoke it. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seems to recognize this in its official agency fact sheet.
Yet following a significant number of overdoses in New Haven, Connecticut this week—70 people are believed to have been sickened after using synthetic cannabinoid products laced with an opiate—both the DEA and a United States attorney are conveniently forgetting these salient facts, and are conflating relatively benign cannabis with incredibly harmful synthetic products.
Late Wednesday, following the New Haven overdoses, the DEA’s Los Angeles field office tweeted an ominous and falsehood-riddled warning.
“[T]his is a good time to remember that #marijuana and #synthetics are very dangerous! #marijuana is illegal in #Cali. Don’t end up locked up!”
With synthetic marijuana possibly to blame for several overdoses in New Haven, this is a good time to remember that #marijuana and #synthetics are very dangerous! #marijuana is illegal in #Cali. Don’t end up locked up! #JustSayNo to #pot #drugwar
— DEALosAngeles (@DEALOSANGELES) August 16, 2018
In California, marijuana has been legal for all adults 21 and over to consume, possess and cultivate since Election Night 2016. It is also not clear what qualifies marijuana as “dangerous.”
Around the same time, Mike Stuart, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, also chose to chime in. West Virginia has the highest rate of opiate overdose deaths of any state in the country. Stuart, too, managed to squeeze several alternative facts into a single tweet.
Synthetic pot mass overdose in CT. Earlier this year in Chicago, dozens died. Synthetic pot EXTREMELY dangerous. Wash Post says marijuana can be addictive. Marijuana is dangerous & a dangerous gateway (first step) to other dangerous illicit drugs. https://t.co/2klcww5WFT
— US Attorney Mike Stuart (@USAttyStuart) August 16, 2018
Most research has debunked “gateway theory.” Even the federal National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances.” It is not clear what data Stuart is using to claim that marijuana is either dangerous or a dangerous gateway—whatever it is, it’s data researchers do not have.
Stuart also severely misrepresented the severity of an synthetic cannabinoid “outbreak” in Chicago.
According to the Chicago Sun Times, as of the beginning of August, two people were known to have died after using synthetic products laced with a rat poison over the past six months. Media reports available a week later put the total number of people killed in the United States by related products in 2018 at around a dozen. Either way, this is far fewer than the “dozens” Stuart claims to have been killed by the substance.
At any rate, as per the Cook County medical examiner, it was the rat poison in the synthetic cannabinoid preparations that killed them—not anything remotely related to a cannabinoid.
The nation’s drug police are not alone in confusing marijuana with so-called “synthetic marijuana.” A headline posted earlier this summer by the Associated Press, the country’s leading wire service that provides content to thousands of news outlets coast-to-coast, recently claimed that six Florida prison inmates were sickened by smuggled “marijuana”—failing to recognize that the supposedly marijuana-like product was synthetic.
You just acted like authorities on cannabis journalism term usage by hosting an #APStyleChat this afternoon and now you’re pushing a header that refers to synthetic cannabinoids as just “marijuana.”
DELETE YOUR WIRE SERVICE pic.twitter.com/Q5tknmMdTr
— Tom Angell 🌳📰 (@tomangell) June 13, 2018
Aside from the mix-up of calling clearly synthetic products just plain “marijuana,” advocates have raised concerns that the term “synthetic marijuana” itself is dangerously misleading. They say that it sends the message that the products are chemically similar or identical to natural cannabis, just synthetically derived. That is not the case.
The AP’s error could be explained by ignorance or negligence. But Stuart and the DEA are supposed to be subject-matter experts when it comes to drugs. For the Justice Department and the nation’s drug enforcement agency to deliberately share “alternative facts,” especially at a time when a significant majority of Americans recognize that marijuana is less harmful than many legal substances like alcohol and tobacco, is a troubling development.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force.
Top Trump Campaign Spokesman: Marijuana Must Be ‘Kept Illegal’
Asked in a new interview about President Trump’s position on changing federal marijuana laws, a top reelection campaign aide said the administration’s policy is that cannabis and other currently illegal drugs should remain illegal.
“I think what the president is looking at is looking at this from a standpoint of a parent of a young person to make sure that we keep our kids away from drugs,” Marc Lotter, director of strategic communications for the Trump 2020 effort, said in an interview with Las Vegas CBS affiliate KLAS-TV.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Virginia Marijuana Decriminalization Gets Closer To Governor’s Desk With New Amendments
One week after bills to decriminalize marijuana in Virginia were passed by both the House and Senate, they advanced again on Wednesday in committee votes, where they were revised in an effort to ease the path to the governor’s desk.
The goal was to make the language of the bills identical, with lawmakers hoping to streamline the process by avoiding sending differing pieces of decriminalization legislation to a bicameral conference committee to resolve differences.
The House of Delegates and Senate were under pressure to approve their respective versions of decriminalization ahead of a crossover deadline last week. After clearing floor votes in their respective chambers, the Senate-passed bill was sent to the House Court of Justice Committee, while the House’s legislation was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Those panels amended the bills and advanced them on Wednesday, with senators voting 10-4 to advance the revised legislation and delegates voting 8-5. However, the Senate panel also struck a part of the text of a compromise substitute version concerning a record clearing provision while the House committee accepted the substitute as offered.
That means it will be up to the Finance Committees to resolve the remaining differences if lawmakers hope to skip the conference step prior to full floor votes in both chambers.
Regardless of the unexpected complication, advocates said the new committee actions represent a positive development.
“Fortunately, the patrons were able to reach a consensus and move the bills forward,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Virginians have waited long enough for this important step, one that will dramatically reduce both marijuana arrests and the collateral consequences that follow such charges.”
The legislation as amended would make possession of up to one ounce a civil penalty punishable by a $25 fine without the threat of jail time. Currently, simple possession is punishable by a maximum $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.
A provision that would have allowed courts to sentence individuals to up to five hours of community service in lieu of the civil penalty was removed with the latest revisions. The bill also stipulates that juveniles found in possession of cannabis will be treated as delinquent, rather than go through a less punitive process for a “child in need of service.”
Language providing a means to seal prior records for marijuana convictions was successfully reinserted into the House Courts of Justice Committee-passed bill after it was previously removed and placed in a separate expungement bill. That latter legislation is stalled, so lawmakers put it back into the decriminalization measure via the substitute to ensure its enactment.
The Senate Judiciary moved to delete that section, however, creating complications for avoiding a conference committee.
Meanwhile, the House Rules Committee voted in favor of a separate Senate-passed resolution on Wednesday that calls for the establishment of a joint commission to “study and make recommendations for how Virginia should go about legalizing and regulating the growth, sale, and possession of marijuana by July 1, 2022, and address the impacts of marijuana prohibition.” That vote was 12-5.
That’s a significant step, as the legislature is generally reluctant to enact bold reform without first conducting a study on the issue.
While Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is in favor of decriminalization, including a call for the policy change in his State of the Commonwealth address last month, he’s yet to embrace adult-use legalization. That said, Attorney General Mark Herring (D), who is running to replace the term-limited governor in 2021, said he’s optimistic that Northam will come around on the issue.
Herring organized a cannabis summit late last year to hear from officials representing states that have already legalized marijuana. That’s one tool he said the governor could use as he considers broader reform.
Also on Wednesday, the House Courts of Justice Criminal Subcommittee advanced another Senate-passed bill to formally legalize possession of CBD and THC-A medial cannabis preparations that are recommended by a doctor, an expansion of the current policy simply offers patients arrested with it an affirmative defense in court.
For now, Virginia seems to be on the path to become the 27th state to decriminalize marijuana, and the first to do so in 2020. Last year, three states—New Mexico, Hawaii and North Dakota—also approved the policy change.
Alabama Lawmakers Approve Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill
An Alabama Senate committee approved a bill on Wednesday that would legalize medical marijuana in the state.
The legislation would allow patients with qualifying conditions to purchase cannabis products from licensed dispensaries. It would be a limited system, however, prohibiting patients from smoking or vaping marijuana.
The Senate Judiciary Committee cleared the bill in a 8-1 vote, with one abstention. The next stop for the legislation will be the Senate floor.
The proposal would establish the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission, which would be responsible for overseeing a patient registry database, issuing medical cannabis cards and approving licenses for marijuana dispensaries, cultivators, transporters and testing facilities.
This vote comes two months after a panel created by the legislature, the Medical Cannabis Study Commission, issued a recommendation that Alabama implement a medical cannabis program.
The full Senate approved a medical cannabis legalization bill last year, but it was diluted in the House to only provide for the establishment of the study commission. Sen. Tim Melson (R) sponsored both versions of the legislation and served as chairman of the review panel.
The current bill has been revised from the earlier version. For example, this one does not require patients to exhaust traditional treatment options before they can access medical cannabis.
The committee also approved a series of amendments by voice vote, including several technical changes to the bill. Another one would shield physicians from liability for recommending medical cannabis. One would clarify that employees are ineligible for workers’ compensation for accidents caused by being intoxicated by medical cannabis, which is the same standard as other drugs.
Watch the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee debate and vote on medical cannabis below:
Members also agreed to an amendment creating a restriction on who can be on the cannabis commission.
While it’s not clear how the House would approach the bill if it advances to the chamber this year, the speaker said this week that he’s “in a wait and see mode” and commended Melson for his work on the measure. The state’s attorney general, meanwhile, sent a letter to lawmakers expressing opposition to the reform move.
Under the measure, patients suffering from 15 conditions would qualify for the program. Those include anxiety, cancer, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder. Patients would be able to purchase up to a 70-day supply at a time, and there would be a cap of 32 dispensaries allowed in the state.
Prior to the vote, committee heard from a series of proponents and opponents, including parents who shared anecdotes about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis for their children. Interest in the reform move was so strong that an overflow crowd has to be moved to a separate hearing room.
“Sometimes people are not able to empathize with others who have gone through something. I guarantee you if one of relatives, members of the legislature, went through something like the testimonies that we’ve heard today, they would want it,” Sen. Vivian Figures (D) said. “But they would probably have the means to fly somewhere and get it.”
One thing we're watching on Goat Hill today is the medical marijuana bill. Alabama is one of only 17 states where medical cannabis remains illegal. https://t.co/V8CK8nm6mm
— Alabama Democrats (@aldemocrats) February 19, 2020
There would be a number of restrictions under the bill when it comes to advertising. It would also require seed-to-sale tracking for marijuana products, set packaging and labeling requirements and impose criminal background checks for licensed facility employees.
A nine percent tax would be levied on “gross proceeds of the sales of medical cannabis” sold at a retail medical cannabis dispensary. Part of those funds would go toward creating a new Consortium for Medical Cannabis Research, which would provide grants to study the plant.
Last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee also approved a bill to decriminalize marijuana.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.