“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.
Biden Says Marijuana Might Be A Gateway Drug
Former Vice President Joe Biden (D) said on Saturday that he’s not sure if marijuana is a gateway drug that leads to the use of other, more dangerous substances.
“The truth of the matter is, there’s not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug,” the 2020 presidential candidate claimed at a town hall meeting in Las Vegas. “It’s a debate, and I want a lot more before I legalize it nationally. I want to make sure we know a lot more about the science behind it.”
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Vote To Federally Legalize Marijuana Planned In Congress
A key congressional committee plans to hold a historic vote on a bill to end the federal prohibition of marijuana next week, two sources with knowledge of the soon-to-be-announced action said.
The legislation, sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and set aside funding to begin repairing the damage of the war on drugs, which has been disproportionately waged against communities of color.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.
Where Presidential Candidate Deval Patrick Stands On Marijuana
Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) announced on November 14, 2019, that he is seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
The latecomer to the race does not have an especially reform-friendly record on drug policy issues compared to many of his rival contenders, and questions remain about where he stands on legalization for adult-use—or even medical use for that matter.
During his time as governor, he voiced opposition to a marijuana decriminalization proposal and raised concerns about a medical cannabis legalization measure. After voters approved that latter initiative, he said he wished the state didn’t have the program, and his administration faced criticism over its implementation.
That said, Patrick, who also served as the U.S. assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, does not appear to have expressed hostility to marijuana reform in recent years and during his time in office did take action in support of modest proposals such as resentencing for people with non-violent drug convictions. Here’s where the former governor stands on cannabis:
Legislation And Policy Actions
Patrick’s administration said that despite a marijuana decriminalization policy going into effect following the passage of a 2008 ballot initiative, law enforcement should be able to continue to search people suspected of possession. However, his office declined to approve a request from prosecutors to delay the implementation of the voter-approved policy change.
After the decriminalization proposal passed, Patrick directed the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS) to develop an implementation plan.
“Our office will continue to work collaboratively with EOPSS and the district attorneys and law enforcement agencies on implementation,” a spokesperson said. “It’s an ongoing process.”
The then-governor said he would work to toughen up enforcement of fines levied against people possessing marijuana.
“The bottom line is the governor believes that if people are fined they should pay the fines,” a spokesperson for his administration said.
Following the passage of a 2012 medical cannabis initiative in Massachusetts, Patrick said simply that the “voters have voted,” and pledged that he wouldn’t seek to repeal the law.
But there were some complications that arose during his administration’s medical marijuana licensing approval process.
In February 2014, Patrick contradicted the state health department, which had recently announced that 20 business licenses had been accepted.
“No licenses have been given. No provisional licenses have been given. What we have is a multi-step process of screening out applicants,” he said. “Don’t get ahead of where we are. There was a balance struck here about trying to let the public in through transparency to the process even though the process was unfinished.”
When reports emerged that certain medical cannabis applicants had apparently provided false or misleading information in their application forms, Patrick said “[n]o good dead goes unpunished.”
“Rather than wait till the end when all that vetting and screening had been done, we’re going to do that first cut from 100 [applicants] down to 20, and we’re going to tell everybody,”
The next month, he dismissed requests for a review of the licensing process by applicants who the health department had rejected.
“I don’t think we gain anything by starting over,” he said. “We are in the middle of a process. Nobody has a license, no one is going to get a license until we meet the standards of the application process.”
Patrick was also criticized for failing to follow up with patient advocates who urged him to effectively implement the program.
“It appears the governor wants to skip out of office without addressing medical marijuana because he doesn’t want to talk about it and he doesn’t want to deal with it,” Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance Executive Director Matthew Allen said in 2014.
Patrick’s successor, Gov. Charlie Baker (R), overhauled the his predecessor’s medical cannabis licensing process to create “a more streamlined, efficient, and transparent process that allows the Commonwealth to maintain the highest standards of both public safety and accessibility.”
Despite opposing marijuana decriminalization and expressing concerns about medical cannabis legalization, the governor did sign several drug policy reform bills during his time in office.
Patrick signed legislation in 2012 that reduced mandatory minimum sentences for people with non-violent drug convictions. He’d introduced a package of bills that included a call for the repeal of such mandatory minimums the previous year, earning praise from reform advocates.
“We need an effective and accountable re-entry program for those leaving the criminal justice system,” Patrick said in a statement. “Combining probation and parole, and requiring supervision after release, takes the best practices from other states to assure both public safety and cost savings.”
Another piece of legislation the then-governor proposed was to reduce the scope of “drug-free school zones,” where people charged with drug crimes would face mandatory minimum sentences. He recommended reducing the size of these zones from within 1,000 feet of a school to 100 feet.
Patrick signed off on a bill in 2014 to expand access to drug treatment.
“This bill creates some new rules and new tools for us to use together to turn to our brothers and sisters who are dealing with these illnesses and addiction and help them help themselves,” he said.
But in 2012, Patrick signed a bill prohibiting certain synthetic drugs called “bath salts.”
On The Campaign Trail
So far, Patrick has not made drug policy a center-stage issue in his campaign. However, his website says his agenda involves “making meaningful fixes to the big systems that consistently fail to meet modern needs.”
“This means a justice system that focuses less on warehousing people than on preparing them to re-enter responsible life,” the site says.
Previous Quotes And Social Media Posts
In 2007, a spokesperson for Patrick’s office said the governor would veto a proposed marijuana possession decriminalization bill. Patrick told the Associated Press that he had other priorities when asked whether he would sign the legislation.
He was listed as a supporter for a campaign that opposed the 2008 decriminalization ballot measure that voters later approved.
Oddly, two years earlier, Patrick was asked about a decriminalization proposal during a debate and said that while he’s “very comfortable with the idea of legalizing marijuana,” he doesn’t “think it ought to be our priority.” He went on to say that he would veto a proposed decriminalization measure in the legislature.
Massachusetts voters also approved a 2012 medical cannabis initiative while Patrick was in office—in spite of the fact that he declined to endorse the measure.
Asked about the proposal during a radio interview with WBZ, the then-governor first cited an argument in support of legalization made by conservative author William F. Buckley Jr., who said regulating drug sales would remove a profit motive for illicit dealers. Yet he went on to say that “I’m not endorsing” the initiative.
“I’m not expressing a point of view and I’m not dodging, it’s just I’ve got so much else I’m working on,” he said.
The host asked if Patrick would implement the law if voters approved it and he said “that’s, I think, what we’re supposed to do.”
In September 2012, he said that he doesn’t “have a lot of enthusiasm for the medical marijuana” measure, which was set to go before voters two months later.
“I mean I have heard the views on both sides and I’m respectful of the views of both sides, and I don’t have a lot of energy around that,” he said. “I think California’s experience has been mixed, and I’m sympathetic to the folks who are in chronic pain and looking for some form of relief.”
“I really have to defer to the medical views about this and individuals will get a chance to vote on this,” Patrick said in April 2012. “I haven’t been paying much attention to it.”
While his administration struggled to implement the program after voters had approved it, Patrick said in August 2014 that “I wish frankly we didn’t have medical marijuana.”
Responding to q abt medical marijuana dispensaries in westrn Mass @massgovernor says "Look, I wish frankly we didn't have medical marijuana"
— Sharman Sacchetti (@SharmanTV) August 20, 2014
Patrick doesn’t appear to have publicly weighed in during the Massachusetts campaign about legalizing marijuana for adult-use, which voters approved in 2016 after he had left office.
In 2012, Patrick said during a State of the State Address that Massachusetts should reevaluate how it treats people convicted of non-violent drug offenses.
“In these cases, we have to deal with the fact that simply warehousing non-violent offenders is a costly policy failure,” he said. “Our spending on prisons has grown 30 percent in the past decade, much of that because of longer sentences for first-time and nonviolent drug offenders. We have moved, at massive public expense, from treatment for drug offenders to indiscriminate prison sentences, and gained nothing in public safety.”
“We need more education and job training, and certainly more drug treatment, in prisons and we need mandatory supervision after release,” he said. “And we must make non-violent drug offenders eligible for parole sooner.”
He also said that the “biggest problem is that our approach to public safety has been to warehouse people,” and that the “answer is new policies, not bigger warehouses.”
“We’ve been warehousing people for whom what they really need is treatment and not just time,” he said during a town hall event in 2009.
Patrick voiced support in 2006 for a bill that would legalize the over-the-counter sale of needles in order to prevent the spread of disease.
“Deval Patrick supports this legislation because he believes it will reduce dangerous diseases in our state,” a campaign spokesperson said. “Studies in other states have shown that programs such as these decrease the rates of disease infection without increasing drug use.”
Patrick later criticized then-Gov. Mitt Romney (R) for vetoing the legislation, stating that the official “put misguided ideology before leadership in public health.”
Personal Experience With Marijuana
Patrick said in 2012 that he has never “experienced marijuana myself” but that during his school years there “was probably enough around me that there was a second-hand, a contact-high.”
Marijuana Under A Patrick Presidency
It is difficult to assess how Patrick would approach federal marijuana policy if elected president, but his vocal opposition to decriminalization in Massachusetts and his administration’s troubled implementation of medical cannabis legalization is likely to give advocates pause. While his current position on legalizing marijuana for adult-use is unclear, given that drug policy reform has become a mainstream issue that candidates are routinely pressed on, it is likely the former governor will be asked to weigh in on the campaign trail.
But for the time being, it appears that Patrick would not make marijuana reform a priority and, in fact, might prove more resistant to policy changes such as descheduling that the majority of candidates now embrace.