Legally high: Trees smokes 'fake' leaf

Anton Trees.
Anton Trees.

A bill has been introduced into the Victorian parliament to ban drugs such as the synthetic marijuana-like substance Kronic.

Anton Trees recently tried a similar product.

If you've read the papers in the past month—whether in Sydney, Perth, or the Border—you've likely read about 'legal marijuana.'

Reporting on the mysterious product has been largely alarmist.

The Western Australian government banned the sale of Kronic, and all similar products, last week, and other state governments are likely to follow.

Recent media coverage has largely ignored three key questions: does the product actually work? Is it possible that it is 'five to 100 times stronger' than street-bought weed? And is it a serious problem?

I had to try it myself.

But before I get to the 'taste test,' some brief background on synthetic cannabinoids:

In 2006, synthetic 'weed' started gaining traction in Europe. It wasn't actual marijuana—that's what made its sale legal outside of Amsterdam—but an unregulated analogue.

Over the past five years, synthetic cannabinoids have carved out a small international niche, spurred largely by online purchases. Sales pale in comparison to the illegal trade in marijuana;

There are no figures for the Australian market. Two local stockists I spoke to told me sales were slow until recent newspaper reports began to act as free advertising.

The product is marketed as incense, removing any legislative obligation to regulate production, while ensuring producers won't be held legally culpable should users suffer adverse effects from smoking it.

The active ingredients in these products, with names like JWH-108 and CP-47.497, come in crystal form. The raw products, mass-produced in China, are available for import right now, through global trade websites like Ali Baba, the same place your iPhone case probably originally came from.

Producers sprinkle these crystals on to non-active herbs. The finished products are marketed with cheesy designs—psychedelic colours, pictures of Bob Marley—and given names designed to evoke the illegal marijuana trade. (The packet I bought was dubbed Pineapple Freight Train, presumably a reference to the 2008 stoner action film Pineapple Express).

As yet, no deaths have been directly attributed to synthetic 'weed.' Nor have any significant health problems—either mental or physical—been pinned on the product's use. Which doesn't mean the product is safe. It just means we don't yet know if it is.

Despite this dearth of evidence, organisations like the Australian Drug Foundation cite isolated examples of bad experiences to support their calls for a ban. 'One person in particular had a very severe physical reaction to Kronic,' the director of the Foundation told the

That's one example, unattributed and unscientific.

So, what is the product actually like?

I bought Pineapple Freight Train from a local sex shop last week.

I didn't believe the claim that synthetic cannabinoids could be 5-100 times stronger than real THC, so I went with what I was told was the 'most potent' brand.

What was actually in the product? What made it stronger than, say, Kronic or Buddha or any of the other brands available? The store person didn't know. I don't know, either.

Which is a real concern. If you were to purchase marijuana from a drug dealer, you could be reasonably certain what it contained: dried stems and leaves from a marijuana plant. That's it.

The ingredients in Pineapple Freight Train, which at $25 for 1.1 grams is slightly more expensive than actual marijuana, are a mystery.

It looks basically like actual marijuana: green, plant-like, dry. But it smells like kitchen herbs left in the pantry for a few years, dull and mild and slightly off.

I roll a fair bit of it, with a little tobacco, into a cigarette. I light it, and it tastes like it smells: dull, not at all pungent, easily dominated by the tobacco. Not especially nice.

The effects are immediate and surprisingly robust. It's stupefying, but it doesn't induce the same relaxated sensation associated with actual marijuana. My face tingles a little. My head feels like it's stuffed with cotton wool. I feel a little nauseous. It seems to have surprisingly little effect on the body—the feelings are largely isolated to the head.

The effect is not 5-100 times stronger than marijuana. The claim is so absurd it would be laughable if it hadn't been printed in so many newspapers.

Smoking it did not bring on paranoia, or a psychotic episode, or a burning desire to pop my eyeballs out with a spoon. I may have enjoyed an episode of

Curious friends report much the same. 'It was okay,' was about as resounding as the reviews got.

I smoked three more pseudo-joints over the following days. Same effects each time. A few hours after I smoked each, I felt a bit seedy.

In other words, the product does what it says it does: provides a (currently) legal, semi-reasonable facsimile of the effects of marijuana.

So, if the product is banned, the reason should not be the immediate effects, which are substantially weaker than quickly downing three beers. The real concern is the possibility of unforeseeable health issues cropping up in the future.

I don't know what I smoked. I don't know who made it, or what was in it.

That sets it apart from marijuana, which has hundreds of years of use from which to draw conclusions. We know it isn't fatal. We know it increases your chances of developing mental health issues (by what degree is unclear). We know it injures motivation. We know it will make you finish the Tim Tams.

I don't want to get too deeply into the legality of the product. Yes, the production of synthetic cannabinoids should be regulated. Yes, it should be taxed. Yes, the onus should be on the manufacturer to prove the safety of the product.

But is it a super drug which will drag a user into a long-term psychosis, as often reported? No.

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