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Synthetic Cannabinoids

Everything You Need to Know About Synthetic Cannabinoids

This article was written by Donald H. Flanary, III, an attorney with Flanary Law Firm, PLLC, and was presented during a drug seminar sponsored by the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association on March 7, 2014 at the Crowne Plaza Houston-Downtown, Houston, Texas.

If you are charged with the possession, distribution, manufacturing, or trafficking in synthetic cannabinoids or marijuana related charges, then call us to discuss the case. We represent clients in serious drug crime cases throughout San Antonio, Bexar County, and the State of Texas.

What are Synthetic Cannabinoids?

Synthetic cannabinoids are a class of psychoactive designer drugs created by mixing natural herbs with synthetic chemicals to produce a claimed alternative to marijuana. Most producers claim it can be smoked in the same manner as marijuana, whether out of a pipe, water bong, hookah, vaporizer, or simply rolled into a joint or blunt. While it was marketed to appear similar to marijuana, there is dispute whether it shares similar psychoactive and pharmacological characteristics.

The History of Synthetic Marijuana

Herbal smoking blends have been advertised in magazines such as High Times and Cannabis Culture for more than twenty years. These products were sold as legal alternatives to smoking marijuana.

The ‘legal smoke’ industry’s goal was to create a product that resembled the appearance, texture, effects, and taste of marijuana. However, it was common knowledge that the products only marginally imitated marijuana, and absolutely had no psychological effects whatsoever. The products consisted wholly of legal, non-psychoactive herbs mixed with other herbs; often shaped to resemble marijuana.

‘Legal smoke’ was mostly shaped into marijuana-shaped buds. These buds often were shaped by hydrating foliage herbs in water, adding a binding agent (often honey), and forming them into ‘buds’ or ‘colitas’ that resemble marijuana. The substance was a legal blend of herbs that has little to no recognized psychoactive effects. These are not the products under contention today. In fact, the legal buds that were once prominently advertised in the major marijuana magazines are no longer advertised.

In 2006, products appeared in Germany that were very similar to the well-known ‘legal buds.’ However the new products contained a chemical that was partly similar to a chemical found in marijuana. See United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Synthetic Cannabinoids in Herbal Products, page 4.

The genesis for these products predicates on the dissemination of laboratory instructions describing its creation with a few chemicals. Id. The method to create this first synthetic cannabinoid, JWH-018, has been described as ‘so easy, a half-brained undergraduate chemistry major’ could accomplish the task. See Legalize Marijuana, Says Inventor of ‘Spice’ Chemicals. The dissemination of the formula was intended to spur medical research, as the synthetic cannabinoids are primarily research chemicals. Id.

Synthetic Cannabinoid Manufacture

To create synthetic cannabinoids, the same foliage used to make ‘legal smoke’ is inundated with synthetic cannabinoids to create a psychoactive substance. The foliage merely acts as a vehicle for combustion. As the foliage is only a vehicle for combustion, the weight of the materials should be looked at differently.

The ‘buds’ are sometimes sprayed, but often soaked, in an Acetone solution to introduce the chemical to the foliage. These chemicals in synthetic marijuana vary, both in design and illegal scheduling. The earliest (and most popular) preparation, named Spice, contained JWH-018, as well as two compounds based on CP 47,497- all of these are synthetic cannabinoids. Id.

Synthetic cannabinoid recipes have been found to contain basic, often little used foliage herbs such as Mugwort, Lemongrass, Chamomile, Lavender, Hops, Muellin, Damiana, Marshmallow leaves, Skullcap, Wild Dagga, Wild Opium, Spearmint, Dream Herb, Chamomile.

The inundated herbs return to their typically dry state, usually a green color reminiscent of either low-grade or high-grade marijuana. Different combinations of foliage leaves will produce different tastes and visual appeal. Id. Coupling the foliage leaf with a collateral flavoring ingredients broadens the spectrum for both taste and aesthetics, not chemical compounds or psychoactive effects. Id.

The manufacturer’s goal is to produce a product that is reminiscent to marijuana strains, such as purple varietals, red varietals, along with flavor profiles such as strawberry, blackberry, blueberry, and kush flavors. These similarities relate to taste and aesthetics, not chemical compounds and psychoactive effects. Collateral ingredients consists of flavoring herbs such clove, passion flower, pine flavoring, orange zest, honey, and other ingredients. Id.

Foliage Herbs in Natural State

Sale of Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoid’s previous status as a legal substance has affected how sales are conducted. See Fake Pot Industry Changes. Synthetic cannabinoids, similar to the non-psychoactive buds in the past, are primarily sold in head shops and convenience stores, often under-the-counter. Id. The product is sold in foil pouches or small clear plastic containers. See United States Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration.

The product is sold by weight, usually in three gram and ten gram bags. The packaging is colorful, creatively-named, and labeled as potpourri or incense. Commonly used names include K2, Spice, Skunk, Moon Rocks, and many others.

Typical Recipe for 50 grams for Synthetic Cannabinoids


  • 50 gram combination of foliage leaves
  • 50 milliliters of Acetone
  • 1 gram of JWH-018


  • Spray bottle
  • Glass, Ceramic, or Metal Baking Dish or Pan;
  • Glass, Ceramic, or Metal Spatula, Spoon or Similar Utensil.


  • Pour Acetone into glass mixing bowl or vial.
  • In the same bowl or vial, add JWH-018 and mix well.
  • Pour mixture into spray bottle.
  • Spread foliage evenly on glass, ceramic, or metal baking dish or pan.
  • Shake Acetone/JWH-018 spray bottle; begin to spray top and sides of foliage evenly.
  • Use spatula to mix and re-distribute foliage. Spray evenly again.
  • Repeat spraying and re-distributing until all the chemical solution has been used.
  • Allow foliage to completely dry.

Commercial Quantities

Scaling the manufacture to a larger scale does not change the overall approach to synthetic cannabinoids. Large operations utilize the same ingredients, but often soak the foliage in the acetone solution rather than spraying manually. Cement mixers are commonly used to evenly distribute and air dry the inundated foliage leaf.

Large scale operations purchase the precursor chemicals from overseas laboratories, often from China. The chemicals are commonly sold in half to multi-kilogram packages; custom made-to-order by small laboratories throughout Asia.

The Synthetic Chemicals

The Huffman Chemicals

John W. Huffman, a professor of organic chemistry at Clemson University, was the first person to synthesize novel cannabinoids. Essentially, he had developed a class of chemicals claimed to mimic the effects of marijuana on the brain. Id. His initial research was funded by the National Association on Drug Abuse. Id. When he developed the chemicals, his focus was to create a drug that targeted endocannabinoid receptors in the body. Over the course of twenty years, his team developed 450 synthetic cannabinoid compounds.

The research goal was to develop medications to treat a host of illnesses, from AIDS, multiple sclerosis, chemotherapy sickness, and Alzheimer’s. Of these illnesses, Alzheimer’s had the most promise. The Hoffman cannabinoids are designated by his initials, followed by the chemical compound number, ranging from JWH-001 to JWH-450. Many of these chemicals are classified as Schedule I controlled substances.

Hebrew University Chemicals

Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, a professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is known for his research in synthetic cannabinoids. Similar to Prof. Hoffman, Dr. Mechoulam had developed synthetic cannabinoids to advance medical treatments. One cannabinoid, HU-211, is currently in Phase 1 trials for the treatment of brain cancer.

The Hebrew University synthetic cannabinoids have a nomenclature similar to Hoffman’s- they are named with the designation HU for Hebrew University, followed by three numbers: HU-211, HU-239, etc. HU-210 is currently on the Schedule 1 controlled substance. See also

Makriyannis Chemicals

Through grants from the National Institutes of Health, and the support of Northeastern University, Dr. Alexandros Makriyannis developed synthetic cannabinoids as research chemicals to aid in the discovery of new medicines. Specificially, he had developed the chemicals to learn how the central nervous and immune system can be modulated using cannabinoid receptors in the brain.

The Makriyannis synthetics follow the same nomenclature, the letters AM followed by a series of numbers. For example, AM-2201 and AM694- both are listed on Schedule I.

Drug Testing

It’s a common misconception that synthetic cannabinoids are undetectable in urine and blood testing. The metabolites from synthetic cannabinoids are detectable, but only recently has their popularity justified the assays. Assessments have been developed to detect synthetic cannbinoids in blood, urine, and oral fluid for at least thirty different synthetic cannabinoid metabolites.

The testing has become standard industry practice in urinalysis panels. Even the Department of Defense added a synthetic cannabinoid assay to their random drug testing program in December 2013.

Field Testing Synthetic Marijuana

Field (presumptive) testing kits have also been developed for testing substances believed to contain synthetic cannabinoid. . Until recently, all suspected materials were sent to state and federal laboratories for testing. Tests have been developed that will assess for different chemicals in one test ampoule.

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