Synthetic Spice: the science behind the drug

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“People using these drugs need to be aware that it is not like getting a medicine from your local chemist’s shop which has been developed by professionals, rigorously tested in the laboratory, producing the same effect in your body every time. What they are being offered can lead to a whole host of differing health issues, including intoxication, seizures, psychotic episodes, heart and kidney problems, and also death.”  

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In recent weeks we have seen headlines in the media like ‘Spice zombies on our streets’ and ‘Manchester police attend 58 spice-linked incidents in one weekend’ and have not unreasonably wondered, ‘what is this nightmare substance?’ The substance in question is not some sort of food that you use in cooking, it is in fact more than one substance. It consists of dry plant material with synthetic chemicals sprayed on it. It may look like marijuana (that’s the idea), but it is very different. Many of these synthetic chemicals are known as cannabinoids, not because they are grown in the same way as cannabis, but because - like molecules found in the cannabis plant - they act on what are called cannabinoid receptors in cells, which alter the way in which the brain’s neurotransmitter ‘messenger molecules’ are released.

Successive legislation has made many of these drugs illegal, but they are now being added too fast for the legal system to keep up. 

The original discovery of the structure of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (D9-THC), the main psychoactive molecule present in marijuana, was made in 1964, and scientists became interested in how this and other molecules affected the brain.

In 1995, Professor John W. Huffman at Clemson University in South Carolina synthesised a molecule that is now known as JWH-018. He found that although it had a very different structure to 9-THC, it bound to the cannabinoid receptors about 5 times as strongly as THC. He had a surprise when in 2008 he was informed that this molecule had been detected in herbal blends sold over the Internet as ‘legal marijuana’. The use of synthetic molecules in such mixtures has since spread like wildfire. In the years since his discovery Huffman came under the spotlight but has always conveyed a robust attitude – ‘you can’t be responsible for what idiots are going to do’.

New materials –“new psychoactive substances” (NPS) - are continually being developed in backstreet laboratories throughout the world to circumvent updates in legislation.Although many of these molecules may look to be very similar, in fact small changes in the length of the carbon chains in the molecule affect the shape and size of the drug molecule in subtle ways and this affects how they bind to the body’s receptor sites, resulting in a profound effect upon the properties of the drug. This isn’t just restricted to psycho-actives, for example the pop star Prince died from an overdose of the painkiller fentanyl in 2016, and laboratories notably in China, are ringing the changes, making more and more potent fentanyl derivatives, where a thousandth of a gram may be lethal.

Problems with ‘designer drugs’ go well back in time. In 1976, a 23-year old American man, Barry Kidston was doing some synthetic chemistry of his own and ended up making a substance named 1-methyl-4-phenyl-4-propionoxypiperidine (MPPP), what would later become known as ‘new heroin’. After a while, Barry Kidston took some short cuts in the reactions, and made a substance he had not intended. This gave him early-onset Parkinson’s disease, a fate that awaited some more people in the 1980s. 

Now vulnerable people are being exploited, offered these drugs cheaply by pushers, when they really should ask themselves ‘cui bono?’ But there’s more to it than that. Though the packaging may look the same, they don’t know if they are getting the same psychoactive chemical every day, let alone the same dose. They also don’t know how long it will take to have an effect on the body (and may be tempted to take more, leading to an overdose). Neither do they know how it may interact with other drugs, including alcohol. What you are being sold in the packet changes in its makeup from day to day, which is why the effects of these drugs vary all the time.

People using these drugs need to be aware that it is not like getting a medicine from your local chemist’s shop which has been developed by professionals, rigorously tested in the laboratory,  producing the same effect in your body every time. What they are being offered can lead to a whole host of differing health issues, including intoxication, seizures, psychotic episodes, heart and kidney problems, and also death.

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