Editorial: Synthetic marijuana a disastrous product


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Last week, a group called Iowans Against Synthetics held its first protest of the sale of legal synthetic drugs outside the Den in downtown Iowa City, a local shop where such products are available.

Iowans Against Synthetics was founded primarily in opposition to the legal sale of synthetic marijuana. Similar products are marketed as incense and are essentially potpourri sprayed with a synthesized cannabinoid, a chemical that mimics the effects of marijuana on the brain.

Group cofounder Amy Sorenson told The Daily Iowan that the protest was motivated by many of the group’s members who have seen their children and other young people suffer serious health problems as a result of the product.

Indeed, synthetic marijuana is a disaster of a product. Marketed explicitly as incense and implicitly as a legal high, it has the unfortunate distinction of being a dangerous legal alternative to a relatively innocuous illegal substance. Sale and use of synthetic marijuana must be stopped.

The accounts of the product’s negative health effects are myriad. In the first three months of 2013, the American Association of Poison Control Centers received 659 calls about exposure to synthetic marijuana. In 2011, the poison center received nearly 7,000 calls on the subject.

A study of the effects of synthetic marijuana conducted at the University of Alabama found that the drug, despite its reputation as being “harmless” has been seen to cause “paranoia, aggressive behavior, anxiety, and short-term memory deficits” among its users.

The poison center notes that the product can cause “dangerous health effects, including psychotic episodes and seizures.”

According to a 2012 report from the Drug Abuse Warning Network, synthetic marijuana sent 11,406 people to the emergency room in 2010 alone.

In terms of short-term side effects and the potential for overdose, the dangers of synthetic marijuana far outweigh the dangers of regular, illegal marijuana. The latter isn’t 100 percent safe, necessarily, but it’s safer than the gas-station hallucinogens available to too many young people in Iowa and in the rest of the country.

In response to the burgeoning product, the Iowa government has attempted in the past to outlaw synthetic marijuana. In 2011, a ban on the product took effect, but manufacturers have been able to work around the law by slightly altering the chemical composition of the products.

This illustrates the rather sticky situation that legislators face when dealing with this product: How best to thwart an industry built on exploiting legal loopholes?

Good public policy should seek to change behavior by changing incentives. In this case, manufacturers of synthetic marijuana are responding to demand among young people for a legal, readily available alternative to marijuana or other illegal or tough-to-find drugs. Policy to thwart synthetic marijuana manufacturing should be designed to chip away at the demand for the product.

At the most basic level, the development of this quasi-illegal industry is an unintended consequence of marijuana prohibition. Demand for synthetic marijuana exists only because the real thing carries the risk of punishment. It is an odd characteristic of the current legal framework that the safer of two alternatives is illegal, while the more dangerous is stubbornly clinging to legality.

It’s a bit of a stretch to say that marijuana should be legalized to torpedo the demand for synthetic marijuana, but the death of the outrageously dangerous and exploitative synthetic marijuana business could certainly be a welcome consequence of legalization.

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