ABOUT THIS BRIEFING: This briefing provides an overview on Synthetic Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists It is not intended to provide detailed information on each compound or a list of all such compounds. The web version has no images in it; the downloadable PDF includes images,This version published 1.8.16 to reflect legal changes and to reflect evolving awareness in the UK.
AKA: Fake Canna; Synthetic Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists, SCRAs
Generic slang: Spice, Mamba
Pre-ban products included: Pandora’s Box, Exodus, Exodus Damnation, Abyss, Psyclone, Sensate, Clockwork Orange, Magic Dragon, and many others.
Some of the names are similar to strains or forms of cannabis, e.g. Blue Cheese, White Widow, Green Crack.
Also referred to as: Incense, Smoking Mixture, Pot Pourri.
The drugs in question typically work on cannabinoid receptors in the brain and body. They should therefore properly be referred to as Synthetic Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists (SCRAs). Although accurate the term isn’t widely used and so the term Synthetic Cannabinoids is used here as it’s more understandable to most people.
OVERVIEW: Synthetic cannabinoids have been on the market since around 2008, but for a while their presence hadn’t been detected. “Herbal smoking mixtures” such as Spice or Aztec Gold were sold by head-shops and on-line sellers as an alternative to cannabis.
This, in turn was nothing new. Head-shops had, for years been selling “smoking mixtures,” usually a mixture of plant material with loosely psychoactive properties. Such mixtures had generally resulted in a headache, sore throat and a house that smelt like an autumnal bonfire. The newer compounds like Spice were different – they actually worked and so interest and use started to increase.
Analysis of samples of Spice revealed that, rather than being a blend of herbal smoking mixtures, the products were actually some inert plant material, which had been sprayed with a synthetic cannabinoid – a chemical which mimicked the action of THC or CBD at cannabinoid receptors in the brain.
MECHANISM OF ACTION: THC is one of the naturally-occurring chemicals present in herbal cannabis and cannabis resin. It is involved in the euphoria associated with cannabis use, but may also be involved in less pleasant effects such as panic, paranoia and mental health problems. In ‘traditional’ strains of cannabis, THC is present alongside other cannabinoids including CBD, which is believed to play an important role in the anxiety-reducing, relaxing effects of cannabis.
THC and CBD bind to and activate cannabinoid receptors in the brain – CB1 and CB2 receptors. Synthetic cannabinoids occupy the same receptors. However, they may be far more potent than “natural” THC – with some synthetics believed to be 100 x the strength of THC. They may also have different affinities – binding more selectively to receptors in one part of the brain or body rather than others.
We don’t know that much about how these newer compounds work. There is some concern that they may also affect other brain chemicals such as serotonin, which may contribute to observed symptoms such as overheating and hallucinations.
LEGAL SITUATION: Novel SCRAs weren’t covered initially by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA) and so were sold legally via the Internet and “Headshops.”
As compounds started to be sold for recreational use, some were regulated by being added to the list of Controlled Drugs under the MDA.
In 2009 the Naphthoylindoles, Naphthylmethylindoles, Naphthoylpyrroles, Naphthylmethylindenes, Phenylacetylindoles and Cyclohexylphenols became Class B Controlled Drugs.
In 2013 Benzoyl indoles and Tetramethylcyclopropylcarbonyl indoles were also added.
The Psychoactive Substances Act came in to force on 26/5/2016 and covers all remaining SCRAs. Although not making them Controlled Drugs it made it an offence to produce, import, export or supply any non-exempt psychoactive substances. Possession in custodial settings is also an offence.
Discussion is currently underway with to add all remaining SCRAs to the Misuse of Drugs Act with a catch-all piece of legislation which would make any substance with action at CB1 receptors a Controlled Drug.
ORIGINS: Synthetic cannabinoids were originally developed for use in research settings. They were synthesized by researchers exploring how cannabinoids work on the brain. The first synthetics were developed in the Sixties and Seventies. A huge number were developed in the States in the mid-eighties by John William Huffman. Compounds he developed, such as JWH-018 appeared in the Spice and Aztec Gold smoking mixtures.
Since then many more synthetic cannabinoids have reached the market. The newest products on the market have been around for a very short period of time so little is known about them.
These newer compounds didn’t all emerge from lab research and were developed solely for recreational use.