Written by W.T.

Three years on and I’m revisiting Synthetic Cannabinoids. Or as they are known, Synthetic Cannabinoid Receptors Agonists (SCRA’s).

When I last spoke about them three years ago, it was about the differences between synthetic cannabis and the homegrown Cannabis that was prevalent at the time. I did not think I would now be writing about how synthetics have infiltrated the homegrown Cannabis market in 2021.

In 2015 the market was geared towards the Cannabis smoker who no longer wanted to break the law, who was looking for a legal way to smoke weed in a country where it is almost impossible to smoke cigarettes without getting dirty looks, or being treated as a criminal. In 2018 I spoke about how cannabinoids work on the CB2 and the CB1 Receptors, highlighting the differences between the new synthetic cannabinoids and the real and proper homegrown Cannabis. These products were readily available; in head shops, newsagents, or even the local sandwich shop. The active chemical in all these products, be it labelled as MAMBA or SPICE, was JWH-018.

Fast-forward three years and the target market has been the desperate, the homeless, the rough sleeper. Basically, the person on the street who needed to skip out and couldn’t remember what the last few hours were all about. We have all seen it in the local press; The Derby Telegraph, The Birmingham Mail, with people acting like Zombies, and harrowing images on TV.

Why did this change happen? How did SCRA’s become the drug for the marginal?

This change happened because most Weed smokers realised that the fake stuff is fake as fake can be. It gave none of the pleasant, drifty feelings that a nice Haze gave or the giggles of the Exodus Cheese they had been smoking. It was never like smoking a joint, it was like that of a hard-hitting bat around the back of the head. This stuff didn’t calm you, it hit you, it knocked you so hard that when you awoke, you questioned where you had woken. And, let’s be honest about this, the fortune is that you woke at all.

Prices for SCRA’s were ridiculously low; a pound for a joint, a mere Seventy pounds for an ounce. At these prices it was an available and feasible drug for people with limited funds that could get those funds by begging on the streets of towns and cities. And all that that has done is kill people! There’s not a single overdose death related to Cannabis use. But with SCRAs, deaths of users have been on the increase. The SCRAs are both directly and indirectly responsible for these deaths. Cardiac arrest (heart attack) and seizures (fits) are common causes of death and hospital admission amongst SCRA users. Other deaths are indirect, such as where the user has been wasted and planted out in the street, because the intoxicated user has a lowered sense of awareness and has been hit by a vehicle, or horrifyingly, positional asphyxiation, caused by being slumped over for hours strangulating themselves.

2020-2021. The synthetic cannabinoid pandemic

I hoped that this was a new phase in drug use that would slowly eradicate itself out as many of the other Novel Psychoactive substances have done, but we move on to 2021 and the risks are as great as they have ever been. During the COVID-19 global pandemic, the Cannabis market has been infiltrated by SCRA’s. The rise in these so-called research chemicals, the availability and ease that the pre-cursor chemicals can be obtained and manufactured in to the final product, and that very finished packaging can be purchased from well-known websites.

In 2020, The European Harm Reduction Network commissioned testing for SCRAs for the first time. This service was offered to the drug information centre (DIZ) of the city of Zurich to test Cannabis flowers or Hashish for the presence of SCRAs. This was a service that was offered due to cannabis users believing that their product had been adulterated with SCRA’s. Unfortunately, due to the limited resources of the DIZ, in September 2020 approximately 10 people per week were turned away.

From January 2020 to August 2020, ninety-one (91) samples were given to the DIZ testing service and these samples were tested for the presence of SCRA’s. The samples that were given consisted of the following, as declared by the user;

85 of the presentations were normal or “conventional weed”, 5 samples of hash and 1 sample of “legal weed”. Conventional weed is what you would call your Green, or Bud, maybe Cheese or your OG. The stuff that’s purchased as real unadulterated weed. Hash is and “legal weed” is Cannabis that has a THC content of less than 1%.

Of these, 83 of the people who presented their samples had purchased within their normal networks; friends, the regular dealer. Six purchased their cannabis “off the street” and only one person reported that they purchased from the internet.

This is where it gets real; this is where it gets scary.

Fifty – yes 50 samples tested came back POSITIVE for Synthetic Cannabinoids. That’s more than half of the samples tested. The samples that were positive contained between multiple different SCRA’s. Fortunately, 34 samples contained only one SCRA, but one sample contained five different SCRA’s. Let’s be honest here, mixing is always a risk, but especially so with these synthetic cannabinoids. There is not a lot known about the interactions of these different chemicals, or of the increased risks when mixing drugs, or being a Poly-Drug user of SCRA’s. What is known however, is that since the rise in prevalence of SCRAs, there has been an increased risk of physical and mental health problems, and ultimately, death. The SCRA that was identified most frequently in these samples was F-MDMB-PICA. This variant, strain, chemical composition has been responsible for many deaths in Europe and North America.

But what are the risks of adulterated weed? An important risk is in determining dose. Because of the way the product is produced, the SCRA’s are not spread evenly over the product, how can they be? They are either sprayed onto, added to, or mixed in with final product.

Synthetics in excess have caused serious poisoning leading to the following; fainting, nausea, heart palpitations, seizures and vomiting. Additionally, within treatment services there has been a notable adverse effect in mental functioning of patients, showing many signs of confusion and delusions, extreme restlessness and panic attacks. Aggressive and violent behaviour is not un-common with people who have taken SCRA’s.

What to look out for and stay safe

So, why would someone hand in their cannabis to a testing service? Maybe it was because of the side effects that were not the normal feelings that they were used to? People were reporting feelings of disorientation and unconsciousness and hallucinations that were overly intense. Maybe this was a little bit more than they paid for! And much more than they wanted?

So – how do you make sure you only get what you paid for? How do you stay safe? What are safer using rules?

First and foremost, if you can, get your cannabis tested.

If you can’t:

You can’t visually identify a contaminated deal. If you are not aware you have a contaminated batch, you are at risk of overdosing.

When you buy a new deal, test first. Roll a joint, take a few tokes. Examine how you feel? Is this a Normal Cannabis high? Give it about 20 mins before you smoke again. Synthetic cannabinoids have demonstrated particularly intense symptoms in the first 10-30 minutes, occasionally resulting in the user needing to resort to emergency hospital treatment. How do you feel now, still normal?

Try not to mix your weed with alcohol, or any other substance. Smoke a joint first. See how you feel. As a last resort, make sure you are getting the same dose each time: grind it down in a grinder. Ensure that the product is mixed well.



BriefingPaper_ Synthetic cannabinoids.pdf (saferparty.ch)

Final_5F-MDMB-PICA.PDF (who.int)