Editorial: Education, not raids, will stop synthetics


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Iowa City’s smoke shops have often been the targets of city police investigation, usually for such offenses as selling to minors. But on Wednesday, a police raid was aided by a none other than the DEA.

Zombies Tobacco Accessories, 316 E. Burlington St., Happy Daze, 361 E. College St., and Pipe Dreamz, 355 S. Linn St., were the businesses targeted for their alleged illicit dealings of synthetic marijuana, or K-2 and spice. As employees of neighboring businesses looked on, the DEA and the police conducted their raid just before noon.

Iowa was one of 29 states in which DEA agents served nearly 200 arrest and search warrants as part of a crackdown on synthetic-drug manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers. The raids were part of the second phase of the DEA’s Project Synergy, in which 150 individuals were arrested and more than $20 million seized. That phase, which started in December 2012, resulted in more than 220 arrests, as well as more than $60 million seized.

With these kinds of numbers, it’s easy to see why businesses would risk running afoul with the law to sell these drugs. Made up of chemicals or herbal mixtures, products such as K-2 are simple and cheap to produce. Many of the compounds found in synthetic marijuana were placed on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act in 2011, making these products illegal to possess or use.

Despite repeated warnings from health experts, their popularity doesn’t seem to be on the decline. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 11.3 percent of high-school seniors use synthetic marijuana. It is the second-most popular illicit drug used by high-school seniors behind marijuana, at 36.4 percent.

Unlike marijuana, spice can be deadly. In a five-day period last week, nearly 120 people overdosed on the drug in Texas. Across the nation, spice is responsible for countless hospitalizations. The long-term effects of use have yet to be studied in detail, but psychosis and the aggravation of existing or latent mental disorders have been cited.

Users of synthetic cannabis report similar effects to marijuana. However, the adverse effects are much more pronounced. Hypertension, vomiting, seizures, and panic attacks are all possible, and the most common side effects include high blood pressure, accelerated heartbeat and agitation, nausea, and blurred vision.

Perhaps the most succinct way to sum up the effects of synthetic marijuana is by quoting its de facto creator. Professor John W. Huffman, who first synthesized many of the cannabinoids found in the drug, once said, “People who use it are idiots.”

Even after these highly publicized raids and the dissemination of facts on spice, why is the drug still popular? Simply put: marketing. Labels on these products often claim they contain “natural” plant material, which is technically true but ignores the dangerous mix of psychoactive chemicals sprayed on the product. And as Iowa City’s three latest raids show, the ability to purchase synthetic marijuana in stores lends a certain fa├žade of legitimacy to the product.

The DEA’s Project Synergy will undoubtedly continue to sweep up alleged offenders, as the fast-moving spice industry tries to change its ingredient list to skirt the Schedule I classification. Yet the solution to the spice problem will have to come from education. Putting resources into getting the facts out, without distortion, is the best way to nip this marijuana mimic in the bud.

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