A synthetic cannabinoid like JWH-210 — the chemical used in the incense Dobner smoked — is a full agonist of cannabinoid receptors in the brain, known as CB1, meaning it has an affinity for binding to these receptors and activating them. THC, the active substance in natural pot, is only a partial agonist of these receptors. Synthetic cannabinoids "therefore have a greater potential for overdose and severe toxic effect," according to an article published this past April in the Cleveland Clinic Medical Journal.

Empirical evidence of these ill effects is hard to come by, but in 2010, the American Association of Poison Control Centers recorded 2,906 calls related to synthetic marijuana. In 2011, the number of calls spiked to 6,959. The most recent statistics available show that through June of this year, 3,273 such calls were logged.

Also alarming but barely studied is the potential for synthetic cannabinoids to trigger psychotic episodes. "It is possible that psychotic symptoms may be more prominent with synthetic cannabinoids than with natural marijuana because not only are synthetic cannabinoids more potent and work as full agonists, but, unlike marijuana, they do not contain cannabidiol, which is thought to have antipsychotic efficacy," according to the Cleveland Clinic Medical Journal article.

Attorneys Spencer Siegel and Thomas Wright get ready to turn over $250,000 worth of herbal incense on behalf of a client.
Courtesy of Siegel Siegel & Wright Law Firm
Attorneys Spencer Siegel and Thomas Wright get ready to turn over $250,000 worth of herbal incense on behalf of a client.
Dylan Harrison, cofounder of Mr. Nice Guy, is scheduled to be arraigned September 24.
Dylan Harrison, cofounder of Mr. Nice Guy, is scheduled to be arraigned September 24.

Then there's always the chance that bags of white powdery chemicals from China used to make the incense might be mislabeled and misrepresented by the sellers.

Kevin Shanks, a forensic toxicologist with Indiana-based AIT Laboratories, tested one herbal-incense sample and found phenazepam, a powerful sedative that originated in Russia but is illegal in the United States. It is sometimes used to treat anxiety, insomnia, and epilepsy.

"The name of the product was Zombie Matter," Shanks tells New Times. "It really does make sense from a marketing standpoint. They're marketing it as something that would zombie-fy somebody, and they put in a very hypnotic drug that would put you into a very sedated, zombie-like state."

Phenazepam has a long half-life, Shanks explains, meaning that it does not clear from the human body quickly. A few straight days of smoking phenazepam-laced Zombie Matter could be lethal.

Shanks also remembers a batch of Funky Monkey that contained the numbing agent lidocaine, and a sample of Kick Ass brand incense contaminated with MPPP, a potent stimulant that's more likely to be used in bath salts — synthetic cocaine-like products that are often sold alongside synthetic pot but are chemically and pharmacologically different.

Once the horror stories began to make the news, politicians were quick to champion laws against herbal incense. In 2010, cities and states began banning various synthetic cannabinoids. But the patchwork approach was like a game of Whac-A-Mole: Anytime one synthetic cannabinoid was banned, three new ones popped up to take its place.

"The way that these chemists can turn these things around in a week or two and have them at smoke shops is remarkable," Shanks says.


Boca Raton-based attorneys Thomas Wright and Spencer Siegel are the Saul Goodmans of synthetic cannabinoids.

Wright is the bombastic half of the duo. He looks like a Baldwin brother gone rogue: thick hair, broad shoulders, crystal-blue eyes, and a graying goatee topped off by a New York accent. He smokes Marlboro Blacks, talks at 100 mph, and can't help but go on a tirade when the opportunity presents itself. Always there to reel him in, though, is Siegel, his colleague of 11 years. Siegel, flanked by a black electric guitar and a pyramid-shaped Montecristo humidor, chuckles from behind his desk while Wright hovers and rants about life at the front lines of the new war on drugs.

"A lot of people assume that I'm some kind of kooky drug addict," Wright says. "I'm actually the opposite. I don't advocate drugs. I lost my brother to heroin; he was a heroin addict for many years, and it destroyed my family... This is not about advocating drugs or anything else. This has to do with laws and the way they're meant to be applied."

After having spent three years in the judicial bowels of the biz, these attorneys can tell endless tales of fortune and enigma. One factory was turning out 4 million bags of incense a week, the lawyers say. Others purchased 100 kilos of cannabinoids at a time. Another had a dozen employees working three shifts a day, seven days a week — the lawyers characterize it as a taxpaying, by-the-books small business. Then there's the guy with no name who disappeared. And, of course, the warehouse that exploded.

Around the same time that Mr. Nice Guy began to be manufactured, the two lawyers' firm, Siegel Siegel & Wright, served as the registered agent for XYZ Widgets, a Boca company founded in February 2010 by Jeffrey Bowman.

XYZ Widgets was the front company for an herbal-incense brand called M@ry Joy. Siegel and Wright helped Bowman ensure that his recipe for M@ry Joy was perpetually in line with the law, even if that meant taking bold steps.

At first, M@ry Joy contained a cannabinoid called JWH-018, which in 2010 was legal in the States and a favorite among herbal-incense manufacturers. But on March 1, 2011, the feds took their first major swing at synthetic cannabinoids by using the DEA's emergency scheduling authority to temporarily classify five chemicals, including JWH-018, as Schedule I drugs (along with Ecstasy, heroin, and peyote) under the Controlled Substances Act. In doing so, the feds claimed that any analogs of the five banned chemicals — meaning any variations of the drug that were substantially chemically similar, intended for human consumption, and produced similar pharmacological effects — were also illegal under the Federal Analog Act of 1986.

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4 comments
shannonfisher89
shannonfisher89

I'm all for legalization of marijuana, but I don't think there's anything wrong with herbal incense either. I've been smoking herbal incense from  http://www.smokingblendreviews.com/ and I haven't had any problems. I think that this story is bogus.

somejerk
somejerk

Legalize marijuana so people don't have to smoke this crap.

 
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