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"Criminal issues from herbal incense? We can help."
September 15, 2012 7:27 AM   Subscribe

The Fake-Pot Industry Is Coming Down From a Three-Year High - a fascinating read on the multibillion-dollar "herbal incense" business and its latest legal woes after the introduction of more severe legislation on synthetic cannabinoids. Featuring the rise and downfall of Mr. Nice Guy, rogue chemists, warehouses exploding, DEA undercover operations and "the Saul Goodmans of synthetic cannabinoids" - two attorneys specialized in providing "Cutting Edge In Incense Testing and Compliance" services to manufacturers to help them "stay one step ahead of the law". (via longform)

Some quotes - on the manufacturing process:
There are three necessary ingredients: dry plant leaves (usually damiana leaf or marshmallow leaf), acetone (the active ingredient in nail-polish remover), and synthetic cannabinoids (white granular chemicals with alphanumeric names like JWH-018, AM-2201, and HU-210).

These chemicals were invented during the '80s and '90s in the labs of legitimate scientists at universities and pharmaceutical companies who had been looking for ways to harness the therapeutic capacity of THC without any of the stoned side effects. After their research hit the pages of scientific journals and seeped onto the internet, rogue chemists with profit motives took it in a different direction.

Nowadays, industrial chemical plants in China and India produce enormous batches of synthetic cannabinoids. They're then sold through websites like Alchemy Incense as "research chemicals" or fertilizer — with a disclaimer that they aren't meant for human consumption.

Transforming the ingredients into a finished herbal-incense product doesn't require a chemistry degree: Manufacturers mix the powdery cannabinoids with acetone, spray the resulting liquid on the plant matter, and wait a few minutes for everything to dry; then the incense is ready to be packaged, shipped, and sold.
On the health hazards of these substances:
A synthetic cannabinoid like JWH-210 — the chemical used in the incense Dobner smoked — is a full agonist of cannabinoid receptors in the brain, known as CB1, meaning it has an affinity for binding to these receptors and activating them. THC, the active substance in natural pot, is only a partial agonist of these receptors. Synthetic cannabinoids "therefore have a greater potential for overdose and severe toxic effect," according to an article published this past April in the Cleveland Clinic Medical Journal.

Empirical evidence of these ill effects is hard to come by, but in 2010, the American Association of Poison Control Centers recorded 2,906 calls related to synthetic marijuana. In 2011, the number of calls spiked to 6,959. The most recent statistics available show that through June of this year, 3,273 such calls were logged.

Also alarming but barely studied is the potential for synthetic cannabinoids to trigger psychotic episodes. "It is possible that psychotic symptoms may be more prominent with synthetic cannabinoids than with natural marijuana because not only are synthetic cannabinoids more potent and work as full agonists, but, unlike marijuana, they do not contain cannabidiol, which is thought to have antipsychotic efficacy," according to the Cleveland Clinic Medical Journal article.

Then there's always the chance that bags of white powdery chemicals from China used to make the incense might be mislabeled and misrepresented by the sellers.
On the savvy lawyers:
Their firm even offers a special compliance and protection package. For $3,500, Siegel and Wright will do their damnedest to make sure all of a client's business practices are 100 percent legal. On the website, incenselaw.com, that advertises the deal, the attorneys say, "The more information we have, the better we are able to protect you. All your information, formulations, and business methods are held in strict confidence."

Siegel and Wright often act as liaison between their clients and private laboratories. The lawyers will have their clients send incense samples to a lab, which runs tests to determine the specific cannabinoids that are showing up in the product. "Then we can issue an opinion as to whether or not that was legal in the jurisdiction where you are or where you want to sell," Siegel says.

If the lab tests show a problem — say, the cannabinoid was recently banned in a particular state or actually turned out to be a powerful hallucinogenic known as 2C-E — Siegel and Wright alert and advise.

Whenever a state or city bans another chemical, Wright and Siegel notify their clients, providing time to rid the banned substance from store shelves and factories, swap in a legal cannabinoid, and return to business as usual.
posted by bitteschoen (37 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Related from NPR.
posted by koucha at 7:40 AM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


From the Incense Law site:

As part of a nationally coordinated effort by the Drug Enforcement Agency, “Operation Log Jam” resulted in nationwide arrests of manufacturers, distributors and retailers of herbal incense products. We have reviewed sworn affidavits from the DEA suggesting that they believe most chemically treated herbal incense products contain analogues of previously banned synthetic cannabinoids such as JWH-018. We disagree.

It's so disingenuous. I love it!

"You don't want a criminal lawyer. You want a criminal lawyer."
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:41 AM on September 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


I have a brilliant plan for putting the synthetic cannabinoid industry out of business overnight.

Can you guess what it is?
posted by Egg Shen at 7:42 AM on September 15, 2012 [83 favorites]


Things have come a long way since high school, when a couple of guys I knew got in trouble for selling oregano to kids even dumber than they were.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:42 AM on September 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Personally, I'd be more worried about ingesting acetone ...
posted by brokkr at 8:01 AM on September 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


a couple of guys I knew got in trouble for selling oregano to kids even dumber than they were.

Yeah. Knuckleheads thought it was Herbes de Provence! Hah! Ruined their French dinner that night!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:01 AM on September 15, 2012 [31 favorites]


Can you guess what it is?
posted by Egg Shen at 9:42 AM on September 15


Hang on, don't tell me.

It's outlawing all synthetic cannabinoids, isn't it? It worked out great for the real stuff.
posted by Talanvor at 8:03 AM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have a brilliant plan for putting the synthetic cannabinoid industry out of business overnight.

Nah, we'd just see SativaPlus for sale.

Wholesome Sativa, fortified for pleasure and taste!
posted by jquinby at 8:05 AM on September 15, 2012


Thank god for my hippie parents. They told me pot was okay and pills and powder were far more dangerous. Even though I didn't start smoking until my twenties, I avoided getting into habits that poisoned my body with synthetic trash.
posted by notion at 8:09 AM on September 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


Personally, I'd be more worried about ingesting acetone ...
posted by brokkr at 11:01 AM on September 15 [+] [!]


Acetone evaporates really really quickly; using it as a carrier solvent probably isn't a problem unless you spray it onto the incense and then immediately ingest it.
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:48 AM on September 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


Interesting read...
posted by ph00dz at 9:09 AM on September 15, 2012


Good lord I'm weary of this stupid drug war. Prohibition hasn't worked, it will never work, and puritans just need to get over the fact that some people like to be intoxicated. banning a weed that everyone can grow has done nothing but feed cartels and promote this sort of chemical nonsense. its just time to give up the war and let stoners be stoners. Frito lay and other snack companies need to throw their pac money at legalization.
posted by dejah420 at 9:17 AM on September 15, 2012 [18 favorites]


This reminds me that an errand I should put on my list this weekend is to head to the dispensary to pick up some weed before my period starts. I can't tell you how nice it is to walk into a clean, well-lighted place, choose what I want to buy, and walk out. No matter what Melinda Haag says.
posted by rtha at 9:20 AM on September 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Acetone isn't particularly toxic anyway.
posted by ryanrs at 9:38 AM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Acetone is a by-product of cellular metabolism...as far as solvents go, it's relatively safe.
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 9:47 AM on September 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


My understanding is that it's also just a solvent. You pick up the stuff with acetone, then deposit it onto the plant matter, then the acetone evaporates and you're left with plant matter impregnated with your substance. So I don't think you'd ever consume the acetone.
posted by Buckt at 11:20 AM on September 15, 2012


Then there's always the chance that bags of white powdery chemicals from China used to make the incense might be mislabeled and misrepresented by the sellers.

That's putting it mildly. The legal, theoretically inspected and regulated food imports from China are terrifying enough; to go anywhere near China-sourced shadow-economy bulk recreational drug ingredients strikes me as seriously flirting with death or permanent organ damage.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:47 AM on September 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


I love how these guys are running a business that was at the time nominally legal, and that's their whole defense, but they still act like black market thugs. Why use so many fake names? Why sell trash bags of your product in parking lots?

But then, it's hard to take anything the DEA says at face value either.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 11:49 AM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


My understanding is that it's also just a solvent.
Teenage hijinks: unwrap the paper from a cigarette butt, put it in the palm of your victim, drop a bit of nail polish remover onto it, and tell them to rub their palms together for 10 seconds and them open them. HILARITY!
posted by PapaLobo at 11:54 AM on September 15, 2012


From my understanding, the majority of the alkaloids in Cannabis are partial CB1 and CB2 agonist drugs. This helps to explain their incredibly high therapeutic threshold.

The problem with these synthetic cannabinoids is that quite a few of them within the JWH, AM, RCS and URB series are full agonists. Meaning that you can literally overdose, in the sense that you can overexcite your endogenous cannabinoid system. The results of this can be nothing short of horrifying: cold sweats, vomiting, immense nausea, flashbacks, fear, panic... a synthetic cannabinoid overdose is lovingly referred to as "The Terror".

I am against the drug war all day long. But I do believe something could be said about the dangers of consuming substances designed for investigation in a laboratory!
posted by fieldcannotbeblank at 12:23 PM on September 15, 2012 [10 favorites]


Also worth mentioning, the usage of many of these cannabinoids create side effects that are wholly detached from the marijuana experience. Tinnitus is a prominent example.

If I smoke a single hit of something that gives me ringing ears for a half hour, something tells me I should cease smoking it.
posted by fieldcannotbeblank at 12:26 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, so stupid, this drug war. Hell, I'm thinking of taking up pot smoking just because.
posted by maxwelton at 12:34 PM on September 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


HIGH TIMES TV - PSA
posted by homunculus at 1:21 PM on September 15, 2012


jquinby: "I have a brilliant plan for putting the synthetic cannabinoid industry out of business overnight.

Nah, we'd just see SativaPlus for sale.

Wholesome Sativa, fortified for pleasure and taste!
"

Is it a good source of 8 vitamins and minerals?
posted by Samizdata at 1:22 PM on September 15, 2012


Synthetic weed is scary. There's no way to know which chemicals are in the weed (the synthetic weed I smoked had a oval sticker on it with tiny font that said which chemicals the weed didn't contain) and there's no way to know the concentration of the chemicals. My opinion is that no one should mess around with this stuff.

I smoked a synthetic weed called Head Hunter back in March 2011. It was not a good experience. I smoked two hits on a Saturday at noon: my incapacitating bad trip lasted all afternoon until I passed out exhausted at 10 p.m. Spent most of the time on my bed. What follows is my experience as I wrote it down in my journal a few days later.

The effects came in three stages:

1. I had two hits. The high comes on with a strength and immediacy I've never felt before. It was a potent and sharp rush that completely blindsided me. I felt blind to the exterior world, and my interior world was in complete chaos. I was unable to form cogent thoughts. I was merely operating in a primitive, panic mode. I found myself pacing my apartment. I needed water. I felt choked by my clothes so took them all off. This sheer panic lasted about 20-30 minutes. My only recourse was in lying down.

2. Lying down, the unfocused panic coalesced to a paranoia. The paranoia was intense and lasted for the next hour or so. I replayed many social scenes in my mind and felt anxious about each one.

3. As the paranoia let up a little, a new factor came into play. My heartbeat became stark and irregular. I was having muscle spasms. For some reason, I remember that my left knee was jolting involuntarily. Aside from this movement, I felt paralyzed. I can't remember if I was incapable, or unwilling, of moving. All the same, I did not move. Last I remember was exhaustion.

I was markedly anxious and shaky for the next few days. Very little good came of the experience, besides the tortured sort of benefit one gets in a harrowing experience -- the powerful beauty of the harrowing.

posted by qivip at 2:52 PM on September 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


To go anywhere near China-sourced shadow-economy bulk recreational drug ingredients strikes me as seriously flirting with death or permanent organ damage.

To go anywhere near China-sourced whatever strikes me as a serious danger, and I don't mean to overgeneralize or to bash chinese people.

Melamine was found in baby milk from China, some nasty chemicals whose names I don't recall were found in children toys and wearable items from China. Also some kind of seed germination retardant on foodstuff. All kinds of stuff that can make people seriously ill. Pink slime in U.S. meat probably is comparativelty harmless.

Allegedly, some of the people who intentionally contaminated the baby milk with melamine, in order to increase its protein count, were executed. That didn't stop the next profiteering asshole from producing more.
posted by elpapacito at 2:54 PM on September 15, 2012


The whole freaking point of the real stuff is that it is not synthetic anything. It's a plant that grows almost everywhere and that humans have consuming for longer than recorded history.

Bleccch, I'd rather be a meth head than smoke that fake pot shit. At least meth doesn't pretend to be anything but sudafed and fucking drano.
posted by spitbull at 3:06 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


For the sake of argument, I would tread carefully when using the "natural drug" versus "synthetic drug" argument.

Scopolamine comes to mind
posted by fieldcannotbeblank at 3:08 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


As does opium! I would argue society has benefitted far more from synthetic derivatives and analogues from opium, than from the usage of opium itself.
posted by fieldcannotbeblank at 3:10 PM on September 15, 2012


The whole freaking point of the real stuff is that it is not synthetic anything. It's a plant that grows almost everywhere and that humans have consuming for longer than recorded history.

Yep, and it's illegal in most places, using it on your own time can cost you your job, etc. The whole point of synthetic is not that it's unnatural, but that it gets you high, is legal/available, and won't pop positive on drug tests. So it is artificially (wink!) made more desirable for a lot of people. Sad.
posted by LordSludge at 3:21 PM on September 15, 2012


Here in Japan, it was legal for a few years, and earlier this year they criminalized it. There were news reports of the evil of this new scourge called ハーブ, haabu, (herb). For once, I think this is a drug that probably should be illegal. If for no other reason than the ingredients of this stuff, under dozens of different names by hundreds (?) of outfits, is a total mystery. FWIW, I tried it a number of times (hey, it was legal, and the penalty for getting caught with weed in Japan is harsh, to say the least) and...I really enjoyed it. Very much like a cannabis high, if only about 75% as effective, and wears off faster. But, for me, remarkably similar.
posted by zardoz at 3:53 PM on September 15, 2012


I don't know about elsewhere, but here in WA state right after the ban on synthetic cannabinoids took place a lot of manufacturers were selling untreated bulk damiana for something like $20-30 a gram in fancy packaging.

And people were still buying the heck out of it.

You can buy bulk damiana from just about any herb shop for about $1.50-$2.00 an ounce, alongside bulk lavender, chamomile, St. John's Wort, rose hips, licorice root and other herbal/folk remedies, spices or just pretty dried flowers that smell nice.

People commonly brew tea out of damiana for a folk remedy against depression. Sure, you can smoke it - and sure, It'll give you a mild buzz when smoked - but it tastes like you're smoking freeze dried carrots.

I talked my local tobacco shop guy into stopping sales of any/all "spice" blends before the ban. He didn't feel so great about it in the first place, so it wasn't a hard sell.
posted by loquacious at 5:20 PM on September 15, 2012


I'm looking forward to the day some kid with a Fisher Price My First Gene Splicing kit starts churning out houseplants that make THC.
posted by jefeweiss at 5:04 AM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


churning out houseplants that make THC

It's possible using standard gardening techniques to graft unrelated plants, such as hops, onto cannabis rootstock to get the unrelated plants, which do not smell or look like cannabis, to make THC.

Of course you'd still turn up positive in a drug test if you smoke them.
posted by localroger at 6:55 AM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Do hops really not smell like cannabis? I did a tour recently of a local brewery, tried eating pieces of hops pellets that they use, and not only did the pellets taste like weed, but different kinds of hops tasted like different kinds of weed.
posted by arto at 8:22 AM on September 16, 2012


It's possible using standard gardening techniques to graft unrelated plants, such as hops, onto cannabis rootstock to get the unrelated plants, which do not smell or look like cannabis, to make THC.

localroger: do you have a cite for this actually being done successfully? I'd heard of this possibility, but only with Hops and only as the idle speculation of High Times magazine
posted by werkzeuger at 2:16 PM on September 16, 2012


werkzeuger I've seen several different how-to's over the years (IIRC the first was a book from Loompanics) detailing the technique, and Google throws up about a brazilion hits. I can't say for sure whether it's really possible as I have no motivation to try it myself, but it seems reasonable. I would suspect the reason it's not done more often if it does work would be that it's a lot of work compared to just hiding the cannabis plants in a closet, and it doesn't help you with the drug test thing.
posted by localroger at 2:48 PM on September 16, 2012


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