“Spice” and “K2” as artifacts of cannabis prohibition

Another illustration of the maxim that the chief cause of problems is solutions.

Gavin Aronsen at Mother Jones  makes an important and obviously correct point: demand for the synthetic cannabinoids marketed as “Spice” and “K2” is entirely an artifact of cannabis prohibition generally, and in particular the practice of urine-testing for cannabis metabolites by employers, schools, and criminal-justice agencies. The synthetics are, by all reports, less pleasurable and more dangerous than herbal cannabis. If the Demon Weed were made legal, they would disappear from commerce: illustrating, once again, Eric Sevareid’s maxim that the chief cause of problems is solutions.

That isn’t a conclusive argument for legalization, or for any specific legalization proposal. (If cannabis is legal for adult but still banned for minors, and if high school athletes still need to pass drug tests, some of them will use the synthetics; that doesn’t mean that pot, if legal, should be sold without age restrictions. If drugged-driving laws are enforced with chemical tests, there will be an incentive to use substitutes that don’t show up on such tests; that doesn’t prove that drugged driving should be tolerated.)   But it’s a factor that needs to be weighed, along with the other costs of prohibition, against the costs of legal availability in the form of increased cannabis abuse and impaired driving.

Alas, thoughtful factor-weighing is almost as rare in the drug policy debates as accurate data.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

16 thoughts on ““Spice” and “K2” as artifacts of cannabis prohibition”

  1. “…the chief cause of problems is solutions.”

    If only government at all levels would take this to heart.

    1. Well, governments act because of pressure from voters, or lobbyists purporting to speak for voters or in voters’ interests… wanting solutions to a prior generation of problems.

      The point of the epigram was not that no one should ever try to solve anything, but only to be humble in doing so and alert to unintended consequences.

  2. I’m surprised that no tests have been developed to detect use of such synthetic drugs. Developing one couldn’t be that hard, and at least in the case of drugged driving there would seem to be a market.

  3. Are these statements perhaps too sweeping?

    Cannabinoids are a broad class of chemicals, not a single entity. Even if no synthetic cannabinoid marketed to date is “superior” to the agricultural product (plain old marijuana), is it safe to conclude that there might not be some synthetic cannabinoid, or cocktail mixing a variety of them, that could find a market alongside the legalized plant product?

    1. A more accurate headline would be the wide spread use of K2 and Spice is an artifact of cannabis testing.

      Ease of use would likely push consumption of synthetic cannabinoids in any case. How else would one explain the hideous Red Bull drinks?

      The fact that Washington will be testing for cannabis DUI may well increase use of synthetic cannabinoids. The scale of such tests will likely spur the development of ever more accurate testing for a wider spectrum of cannabinoids to fill the new testing demands. A chemistry versus testing arms race is a real possibility.

      1. I would say more accurate testing is def needed in order to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” someone is under the influence.

  4. What is the justification for drug-testing athletes for pot? Is it believed to be performance-enhancing? I mean, I suppose it might be useful to relieve the stress of training, and maybe it has properties as a muscle relaxant or some such to aid in recovery – but it doesn’t seem to be on the same plane as erythropoetin, or growth hormone, or steroids.

    I suppose that we impose behavior rules of other sorts that have nothing to do with maintaining a fair playing field (GPA; course load; no disciplinary infractions, including alcohol). Maybe the testing for pot qualifies in that category, especially the last one, and would continue to do so because pot would remain illegal for minors. Still, I suspect that if there were a good way to test for past alcohol use, or if there were surprise inspections for intoxication, few athletes would escape unscathed.

    1. Sports organizations test for pot for the same reason other employers do: they believe that someone who smokes pot is unreliable and they want to weed them out.

      1. Or they don’t want to pay for an accident and can get away with this with if the drug test comes back positive, and also it is a great way to lay off portions of the workforce w/o having to pay unemployment.

    2. In 1985 a big drug scandal hit Major League Baseball. It started when two men were prosecuted for supplying cocaine to Pittsburgh Pirates players. Shortly afterwards, drug testing regimes were introduced in baseball and other sports.

      The concern wasn’t so much the performance enhancement — it was being a good role model for the youth.

      Wife beating was no big deal, but using drugs — that was a scandal!

  5. Isn’t it just as likely that, if marijuana were made legal, employer testing for marijuana use would dramatically increase? Most employers aren’t going to want employees to be impaired while on the job, and if marijuana becomes illegal many might reckon that usage rates will increase. With a loose labor market, why not use a positive marijuana test as an excuse to replace employees with lower-cost new hires?

    1. Of course, I meant “if marijuana becomes _legal_ many might reckon that usage rates will increase.”

    2. If only the tests were for impairment on the job…alas they ARE more of an excuse to replace people with lower-cost new hires.

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