Rise of the Mystery Highs

How prohibition drives people toward riskier drugs


Last week NBC News broadcast a story about Cloud 9, "a dangerous new synthetic drug that's been turning up at high schools." Anchorman Lester Holt warned that Cloud 9 is "legal, unregulated and readily available at convenience stores"; that it "has sent almost two dozen young people to the hospital this year in Michigan alone"; and that "it has already prompted one county to issue an emergency order banning its sale as an imminent danger to public health." In the report that followed Holt's introduction, correspondent John Yang described Cloud 9 as "a clear liquid" with "no aroma other than a faint fruity smell" that can be discreetly consumed in an e-cigarette and "cannot be detected by standard drug tests." According to Yang, the drug's effects "include hallucinations, agitation and severe vomiting," as well as "seizures, strokes and heart attacks."

Cloud 9 seems carefully designed to be every parent's nightmare and every yellow journalist's dream. But what is it, exactly, and what are its effects, aside from the hallucinations, agitation, severe vomiting, seizures, strokes, and heart attacks mentioned by Yang, which presumably are not what attracts people to it? NBC was vague on those points, and so is the local press coverage from which it cribbed much of its story. It turns out that lots of people think you should worry about Cloud 9, but very few of them know what it is.

Such confusion is a familiar feature of drug panics, but it is compounded in this case by the proliferation of psychoactive compounds designed to stay a step ahead of the law, which is no match for the creativity of underground chemists. And while some of the warnings about Cloud 9 and other new synthetics should be taken with a grain of salt, it's true that such novel compounds pose unknown risks, that they may be more dangerous than the older drugs whose effects they are supposed to simulate, and that most consumers do not really know what they are taking or what it might do. Yet all of these problems are caused or aggravated by drug prohibition, which perversely encourages people to experiment on themselves with mystery chemicals.

"Cloud 9 is not a drug," says Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). "It's a name." Some accounts describe Cloud 9 as a marijuana substitute, similar to products such as Spice or K2. Other accounts, including 2013 testimony by Joseph Rannazzisi, who runs the DEA's Office of Diversion Control, identify Cloud 9 as a methamphetamine or cocaine substitute in the same family as products sold as "bath salts." So which is it? A synthetic cannabinoid or a synthetic stimulant? "It could be anything," Payne says. "It could be all of those things." As John Yang noted in his NBC report, the bottles of Cloud 9 sold in southeastern Michigan have "just the name on the label, no other writing. It doesn't say who made it, where it's from, or what's in it."

Stories in the local press do not shed much light on that last question. In a May 21 story headlined "Cloud 9 Rains Misery on Family," Lisa Roose-Church, a reporter for Michigan's Livingston County Press, calls Cloud 9 "a synthetic cannabinoid" marketed as "hookah-related incense or oil." But she also says "it has been sold as bath salts" and quotes the website of Sober Living by the Sea, a chain of California drug treatment centers, as saying Cloud 9 "gives users a euphoric ecstasy-like sensation, with an amphetamine-like high." Roose-Church adds that "product ingredients vary, but typically include stimulant compounds such as methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) or 4-methylmethcathinone, also known as mephedrone." Those are both stimulants, not cannabinoids, and they are banned by name under federal law, which makes NBC's claim that Cloud 9 is legal rather puzzling. A September 18 story from Associated Newspapers of Michigan, headlined "3 Teens Suffer Effects of 'Bath Salts' Overdose," likewise describes Cloud 9 as "a synthetic cathinone," the family to which MDPV and mephedrone belong.

Those stories are models of clarity compared to a September 23 report on WJBK, the Fox station in Detroit, which called Cloud 9 "a liquid synthetic drug made from chemicals found in air freshener or bath salts." Two days later, perhaps taking her cue from WJBK, Julie Snyder, a reporter for Michigan's C & G Newspapers, said Cloud 9 is a "liquid synthetic cannabinoid made from chemicals found in air fresheners and bath salts." These descriptions conflate the fig-leaf labels given to synthetic drugs with their chemical derivation: The drugs are disguised as unobjectionable products such as air fresheners and bath salts; they are not made from those products.

Like the Livingston County Press, WJBK cannot seem to decide whether the active ingredient in Cloud 9 is a stimulant or a cannabinoid. In a September 25 story describing one teenager's experience, the station says Cloud 9 delivers "a relaxed high," "like K2 or spice bath salts." K2 and Spice are both brands of ersatz marijuana, while "bath salts" are products containing synthetic cathinones. WJBK seems to have invented the phrase "spice bath salts" to describe a chimerical substance that mixes qualities of both drug categories. By contrast, an Associated Press report published the same day calls Cloud 9 a "synthetic marijuana product" similar to K2 and Spice. A few days later, NBC decided not to choose sides in this debate, playing it safe by describing Cloud 9 merely as "a synthetic drug."

Searching for clarity, I checked with the two county governments that reportedly banned Cloud 9 last week. If you ban something, I figured, you have to know what it is.

According to an "emergency order" issued by the Macomb County Health Department on September 24, the active ingredient in Cloud 9, as well as similar products called Crown and Relax, is (S)-?N-?(1-?amino-?3-?methyl-?1-?oxobutan-?2-?yl)-?1-?pentyl-?1H-?indazole-?3-?carboxamide, a.k.a. AB-PINACA, a synthetic cannabinoid first described in 2012. The health department's director, William Ridella, says that identification was based on a test by the state police laboratory of at least one sample purchased in southeastern Michigan. AB-PINACA is not explicitly banned by federal law, but Ridella says it may be covered by a catchall provision of the 2012 Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act that describes synthetic cannabinoids in general terms, based on their structure and pharmacological action.

Mystery solved? Not quite. An order from the Wayne County Department of Public Health, issued the same day as the Macomb County order, is vaguer, referring to "the materials branded as 'Cloud 9' and 'Hookah Relax.'" It says "this order also covers both synthetic cannabinoids and 'bath salts' or cathinone stimulants." When I ask Mary Mazur, a spokeswoman for the health department, which of those many chemicals is the active ingredient in Cloud 9, she refers me to information about MDPV, one of the cathinones banned by the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act.

If journalists and government officials can't agree what Cloud 9 is, imagine the position of the average consumer. Cloud 9 is not a brand in the usual sense, owned by an identifiable company with exclusive rights to use it and a strong incentive to protect its reputation. Anyone can use that name for any chemical at all, so people who consume the product are taking a real gamble.

How big a gamble is not clear. "It's absolutely deadly," Westland Police Chief Jeff Jedrusik told WJBK. Yet C & G Newspapers reporter Julie Snyder concedes there have been "no deaths related to the use of Cloud 9." And although several news outlets, including NBC, mention the possibility of strokes, seizures, and heart attacks, none cites any specific cases.

Still, consuming quasi-legal, untested, newly invented drugs is undeniably risky. "The adverse effects and addictive potential of most of these uncontrolled substances are at best poorly understood," warns a 2013 report from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. The report says the new drugs "can have deadly consequences for their users but are hard to control, with dynamic, fast mutating producers and 'product lines.'" It notes that they "have not been tested for safety" and "can be far more dangerous than traditional drugs."

Those safer, "traditional" drugs would be the ones that governments have arbitrarily chosen to ban, thereby pushing consumers toward iffy substitutes. If Cloud 9 is a marijuana substitute, it is a pretty poor one, judging from the unpleasant side effects described by some users (although the ones quoted in news reports are surely not a random sample). But thanks to our drug laws, Cloud 9 has certain advantages over marijuana: You can buy it cheaply in convenience stores without risking arrest, for instance, and it will not get you thrown out of school or fired from a job because of a positive drug test. To the extent that marijuana prohibition creates a niche for products like Cloud 9, it is driving people away from a well-researched drug that humans have been consuming for thousands of years and toward experimental compounds with unpredictable hazards.

The drug laws also encourage risky choices by blocking the information needed to make safer ones. Under the Federal Analog Act of 1986, explicitly selling synthetic drugs for recreational purposes is legally perilous even when those substances are not prohibited by name, which is why manufacturers, distributors, and retailers pretend such products are not intended for human consumption. Directions about dosage and warnings about potential side effects would destroy that pretense, and clandestine chemists in any case have little incentive to do the research needed to provide such guidance.

"They just keep using any loophole they can possibly devise in order to keep pushing this stuff," says Mary Mazur of the Wayne County health department. "They're very creative about the way they formulate these compounds, and that might result in people not being as aware of what the substance is."

The DEA's Rusty Payne notes that his agency has identified hundreds of recently developed drugs, mostly manufactured in China and India, and that more are always on the way. "It's an ever-evolving, chaotic situation," he says. "We are certainly not going to legislate our way out of this problem."

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.