Last week’s 24-hour mass poisoning episode in a Connecticut park opened the public’s eyes to a new wave of street drugs: “synthetic cannabinoids” sold as alternatives to weed but with far more toxic and unpredictable effects, experts say.
As TV cameras rolled in the New Haven park, people passed out or had seizures. At least 47 people overdosed, according to Officer David Hartman of the New Haven Police Department, some multiple times, leading to 108 hospital runs. No one died, but emergency personnel suddenly had to respond to numerous seizures happening all at once, in and around the park near Yale University.
Although early reports speculated that the culprit was the powerful opioid fentanyl, it turned out to be two synthetic cannabinoids, AB-FUBINACA and AB-PINACA, both in a family of dangerous designer drugs sometimes called K2 or “spice.” Sold as lab-made alternatives to marijuana that defeat drug tests, they are far stronger than earlier versions of synthetic weed sold under the same names.
First developed by Pfizer as a potential cancer pain treatment, AB-FUBINACA is one of five or six very potent synthetic cannabinoids in illicit circulation right now, forensic scientist Barry Logan of NMS Labs in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, told BuzzFeed News. AB-PINACA has been linked to comas and irregular heartbeats in case reports. Others have similar alphabet-soup names, such as FUB-AMB, MDMB-FUBINACA, and AMB-FUBINACA (the last one implicated in a 2016 “zombie” outbreak in New York) defining their chemistry, designations that never appear on the colorful foil packets sold on the street or in convenience stores. Inside the packages are typically ground leaves that look like weed, sprayed with the compounds in liquid form.
These products are often cut with other drugs, most worrisomely a blood thinner that triggered an FDA warning after hundreds of people in 10 states suffered severe bleeding, leading to several deaths. Last month, a packaged synthetic weed known as “Santa Muerte” — a combination of heroin, fentanyl, and the synthetic cannabinoid 5-fluoro-ADB — killed 10 people in Philadelphia.
“The bottom line is that the user has no idea what they are purchasing — their purity, what they may be cut with, or their strength — so the risk of an adverse event is significant,” Logan said.
Since 2008, when synthetic cannabinoids were first reported in Japanese herbal supplements, they’ve exploded in popularity, with more than 130 chemical variations reported so far to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
The famous THC molecule in marijuana partially activates two cannabinoid receptors in the brain, one that causes a high and one that inhibits the immune system. In contrast, synthetic cannabinoids fully activate both receptors, leading to unpredictable effects.
But unlike marijuana, these synthetic drugs are not initially regulated (or “scheduled”) by the Drug Enforcement Administration, leading to their widespread sale as an alternative. (They also aren’t picked up by standard drug tests for weed.)
At first, synthetic cannabinoids sold as designer drugs by underground chemists were knockoffs of ones described in the medical literature by pharmaceutical researchers, which at least gave some idea of their side effects. But today’s second generation of synthetic cannabinoids is far less understood. They are estimated to be 11 to 1,000 times more potent than marijuana, and they have been linked to rapid heart rate, vomiting, violence, suicidal thoughts, high blood pressures, kidney damage, and seizures.
Pfizer applied for a patent for AB-FUBINACA in 2009 for treating cancer and inflammation pain. “Our work in this area was confined to the lab, never tested in patients, and eventually discontinued,” Pfizer spokesperson Sally Beatty told BuzzFeed News. (The US Patent Office noted the application was abandoned in 2013.) Later tests in rats by independent researchers have linked the drug to reduced breathing rates and slower heartbeats.
Illicit chemists had grabbed ahold of AB-FUBINACA by 2014, when the DEA first scheduled the drug as a controlled substance after it started turning up for sale in head shops selling drug paraphernalia. That year the agency seized 778 pounds of “aromatic potpourri” incense containing AB-FUBINACA from a head shop outside Milwaukee. It was sold as “Bizarro” and “Super Nova” in an Iowa City case. Officials had realized the drug was coming from China by 2015, when a Chinese chemist named Haijun Tian was arrested at LAX for smuggling it into the US.
Since then it has still widely been sold even in retail stores, sometimes labeled as "not for human consumption" or "legal in 50 states.” In 2016, for example, the DEA seized some 2,000 pounds of the stuff in New England (intended for sales in convenience stores as “Scooby Snax” and “Toxic Blue Magic”) and 42,000 pills mixed with an antianxiety drug in Charleston, West Virginia. A T-shirt tent vendor was arrested for selling it at the Virginia State Fair in 2017.
“It’s not substantially different than the other synthetic cannabinoids we are seeing,” the DEA’s Lawrence Payne told BuzzFeed News.
As for the recent spate of overdoses in New Haven, authorities suggest the cause was a particularly strong batch of AB-FUBINACA or other synthetic cannabinoids.
“If this is purely a synthetic cannabinoid-related toxic event, then the cause is most likely linked to a very high potency or high-purity batch of the drug,” said Logan. “It could be that there is another adulterant agent in the supply also that is not being detected.”
The DEA has supported a bill now under consideration in Congress that would give the attorney general much stronger power to designate drugs as controlled substances, seeking to end the whack-a-mole scheduling of new synthetics as they pop up in the marketplace, only to be outlawed and then endlessly replaced.
Critics have pointed out that scheduling synthetic cannabinoids hasn’t stopped their sales or overdoses, as the New Haven case shows. Instead, prohibition has spurred an increase in potency of the drugs, Grant Smith of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for legalizing marijuana, told BuzzFeed News. “As we move on, they just get more potent, with people taking them because they think they are some sort of alternative to marijuana, when they aren’t.”
The synthetic cannabinoid AB-PINACA was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.