“Synthetic marijuana” is the catch-all term used to describe plant material dosed with some kind of chemical concoction, ingestion of which has some kind of psychoactive effect on the user.
Vague? Absolutely. Potentially hazardous, a bad idea and a strong argument for legalization of actual marijuana? Right all around—but in the meantime, the market inefficiency presented by human beings’ universal demand for cannabis coupled with a lack of access means there will always be room for unscrupulous sellers of spurious chemical cocktails to make a profit.
At the same time, drug sellers are like any other legitimate merchant: They need repeat customers. They also need, if not quality-control exactly, some kind of data on their product.
Until 2014, synthetic cannabis was classified as a “legal high” and was available over-the-counter. Since then, things have deteriorated to the deadly: In New Zealand, fake weed has led to at least 10 deaths in the last month, according to local media. Despite this mortal risk, there’s a robust market for fake weed.
“At night there are people hiding away in doorways smoking the stuff, it’s everywhere,” one anonymous user told news website Stuff.
According to a former synthetic cannabis user interviewed by the New Zealand Herald, fake-weed makers will mix ingredients, including sleeping pills, anti-anxiety drugs and rat poison, and then test out their homemade chemical concoctions—“homemade poison,” the newspaper called it—on homeless people.
Similar scripts have played out in the United States. Last year in Brooklyn, a particular bad batch of synthetic cannabis rendered its users into mindless “zombies,” a surreal situation recorded in the New York Times.
In New Zealand, fake weed is “worse than meth,”according to Wena Theodore, a recovering drug user who’s awaiting sentencing on drug charges of her own. (This is no small charge: Only a few months ago, the same Herald declared meth was becoming the nation’s “most addictive substance.” Somewhere, tobacco and alcohol shed a tear.)
According to police, the fake-weed trade in New Zealand is dominated by an outlaw motorcycle gang, who can produce a kilogram of the stuff for as little as $300—and then sell it on the street for as much as $10,000. As if it weren’t obvious enough that this is a problem of poverty, as much as anything else, police cop to the fact that synthetic weed appears most popular among vulnerable populations like the homeless—who become the de-facto guinea pigs for new formulas.
The government response to this epidemic has so far been almost entirely carceral. Police have attempted to break up a few synthetic marijuana distribution rings, but provide the usual excuses for why the flow of drugs continues unabated: There’s simply too much to stop. Too much demand, too many avenues.
About 20 people a day in Auckland, the country’s most populous city, are transported to the hospital via ambulance after using fake weed, which is still the cheapest and most potent high available—meaning, as long as there’s poverty around, there will be a demand for it.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are slowly moving toward legalizing some form of actual marijuana, but only cannabis high in CBD. Like all drug epidemics, this is an unnatural disaster created by humans—including, if not primarily, by the ones in power.
So what’s to be done? Nothing, according to Wana Theodore.
As per the Herald:
Theodore says the outlook is bleak and believes many more lives will be taken before the scourge of synthetics can be overcome.
“There’s no undoing this. It’s not going to stop.
“We’ve been through so much brokenness and trauma. A lot of people have to hit rock bottom before they change.
“But it’s unfortunate that some people don’t get that privilege because they end up in a box.”
Maybe she can’t say it because she’s still at the mercy of a judge, so we will: Legalize real marijuana, and the market for fake shit will shrink.
Then, do something about the gaps in the social safety net that see desperate people with nothing to lose living on the streets.
Or keep watching people die from ingesting bizarre chemical cocktails. Eventually, maybe we’ll make the better choice.