Marijuana substitutes force changes in laws

Editor’s Note: For the purpose of privacy, the student sources in this story asked that their last names be withheld.

Try to look through the window of Jack Chicone’s smoke shop, Undercover, and you’ll probably end up seeing your own refection. Little light escapes outside, and the red stenciled letters barely register against a dark background. Inside, shelves hold plastic bongs and glass pipes of every size.

Behind the counter, plastic pouches with names like “Bayou Blaster” and “Demon” hang like shiny, colorful bats. Inside these bags is a potpourri-like mixture sprayed with chemical compounds. When smoked, it mimics the effects of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. These types of products are relatively new, but their existence has ushered in what Chicone calls a “chemically based world.” This new world is one that has confounded recent legislation in Illinois and over a dozen other states.

Synthetic cannabinoid products first hit the store shelves of Europe in 2002. At that time, they were marketed as organic herbal mixtures or potpourri, but the psychoactive effects were eventually discovered to be chemical in nature. Chicone, whose shop is located at 624 S 5th St in Champaign, began stocking various brands of synthetic cannabinoids two years ago and discovered they were an instant and lucrative success.

“Oh, my God, it’s amazing. It’s hilarious how much money is being spent on this,” he said. “When the (vendor) told me how much money could be made on this stuff, I scratched my head. Seriously, I doubted him. Not anymore.”

However, users have reported various negative side effects.

“I definitely wouldn’t recommend (using) any kind of synthetic drugs. Drugs overall are bad enough. … I don’t think you need to start messing around with a lab experiment,” said Kevin, a student who requested that his last name not be printed. Kevin and his friend Jeff smoked synthetic pot for around two months, and both reported that they experienced headaches and discomfort after smoking.

Chicone said the sensationalism that surrounds synthetic cannabinoids does not take into account the possibility of people using them in conjunction with other substances.

“My only concern is nobody knows what the effects of this stuff is going to be in five to six years, medically-wise,” Chicone said. “So there are bad sides of it, but I’m not their parents.”

The unstudied effects of human consumption along with reports of hospitalizations drove the Illinois General Assembly to ban the sale of any synthetic cannabinoid products containing the chemical compounds JWH-018 or JWH-073 in July 2010. The ban went into effect Jan. 1, making Illinois the 17th state to ban the substances.

On March 1, the Drug Enforcement Agency banned five substances, including JWH-018, which are now considered Schedule I narcotics and are therefore illegal.

However, these laws only banned specific substances, and there are hundreds more still legally available that can also mimic the effects of THC.

“It’s a game. These are companies and corporations that employ chemists. They will stay one step ahead of the DEA,” Chicone said.

The bags of “Demon” behind Chicone’s counter now display a label declaring that the product is “certified lab tested” to be free of JWH-018 and the other newly illegal substances.

University Police Lieutenant Skip Frost said he does not consider synthetic cannabinoids a unique problem.

“People will continue to find a way to circumvent the law to get intoxicated,” he said.

Over a 23 year career, Lt. Frost said he has observed some strange things.

“I have seen the most bizarre things ingested in the interest of getting high. People microwaving banana peels and smoking jimson weed … It’s just amazing to me what people will attempt,” he said. Frost also said he expects more regulation of synthetic cannabinoids in the future. However, he says that this is a circular process and predicts the legislation will chase the products. Yet the products themselves are likely to get more sophisticated and diversified as the manufacturers chase the virtually infinite demand of their customer base, he said.

Case in point: In Chicone’s shop, you can find “relaxation brownies” made with melatonin (which is naturally produced in the body) and packets of kratom leaves that can be chewed or made into tea for their opiate-like high.

From under the counter, Chicone pulled out a plastic bag filled with small containers sold as “bath salts” that mimic the effects of cocaine. He isn’t comfortable displaying them. All of these products are legal.

Whatever happens, Chicone will adjust and keep his store stocked, and Lt. Frost and the law will be one step behind him.