The Chinese Connection
A scene from Morris’s documentary, “Synthetic Drug Revolution.” Credit: HBO
They’re tricks every medicinal chemist knows: Swap a nitrogen atom for a carbon; change a methyl to an ethyl; tack on a methoxy group. These molecular modifications, used by pharmaceutical makers to improve drug candidates, are the same ones being used to help synthetic cannabis makers stay one step ahead of the law, as Vice correspondent Hamilton Morris reports in “Synthetic Drug Revolution,” his short documentary for HBO that airs tonight at 11 PM EDT.
Synthetic marijuana or synthetic cannabis typically refers to run-of-the-mill herbs that have been sprayed with designer drugs known as synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists. These are often sold as “herbal incense” or “spice,” and although they’re labeled as “not for human consumption,” people often smoke them to get high. The synthetic cannabinoids are usually analogs of banned substances, and even though such analogs are technically illegal, it’s tough for analytical chemists in law enforcement to keep up with the dozens of new versions that synthetic chemists churn out each month.
“They’re immensely popular, and they constitute what’s probably a multimillion-dollar, if not a billion-dollar, industry,” Morris tells C&EN. The 2014 Monitoring the Future study from the University of Michigan shows that synthetic marijuana is the third most popular drug for abuse among high school seniors, after authentic marijuana and the prescription drug Adderall.
Synthetic cannabinoids “are interesting from a toxicological standpoint because they’re introducing all these unusual syndromes that are not experienced by users of cannabis,” Morris explains. “People are dying from them, which is something that is almost never seen with actual cannabis.”
To learn more about the origins of these compounds, in the documentary, Morris travels to New Zealand to meet with Matt Bowden, who has been described as the “godfather of the legal highs industry.” From there, Morris ventures into fine chemicals manufacturing sites in China, where he finds a sophisticated operation synthesizing cannabinoids.
“It was absolutely necessary to go to China to see how these things are being made, to understand the entire market,” Morris says. “The scale of it, the level of sophistication, I think, would be surprising to people. Some of the laboratories that are manufacturing these compounds are also contracted to synthesize intermediates for major pharmaceutical companies. This isn’t what you’d imagine a clandestine laboratory to be like. It’s not people mixing things in a bathtub or in a trash can. They’re fully functioning pharmaceutical laboratories with hundreds of thousands of dollars of analytical equipment.
“There is no division between the normal market for fine chemicals in China and the gray market” because the firms there aren’t thinking of cannabinoids as illicit drugs, Morris continues. “One day they might be making a treatment for androgenic alopecia, the next day they might be making a tomato-rooting hormone, and the day after that they might be making an indole-based cannabinoid. It doesn’t matter to them. It’s just a chemical.”
Anyone familiar with “Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia,” Morris’s video series for Vice that’s billed as “a curated tour through the world of drugs,” knows the filmmaker has more than a passing familiarity with illicit drugs. But what might be surprising to C&EN’s readers is his knowledge of chemistry. He clearly knows his indoles from his indazoles. In the HBO piece, the word “rotovap” rolls off his tongue like he’s stripped some solvent himself. Morris tells C&EN that, in addition to taking undergraduate courses in general and organic chemistry, he’s spent time doing organic synthesis and has even published in scholarly journals, such as Drug Testing & Analysis (2014, DOI: 10.1002/dta.1689).
Morris tells C&EN that his real interest lies in the specific chemicals and syntheses used to make synthetic cannabinoids, and he hopes to put together a more technical piece in the future. But for the moment, he hopes viewers see just how current controls on cannabis have led users to more dangerous alternatives.