A synthetic cannabinoid recipe was first created by Pfizer and that recipe somehow left the lab and made it to street level where it was duplicated (Spice) and sold to kids looking for a cheap high (not the ER visit they typically get).
Every now and then a substance so vile comes along that no one wants to be known as its creator. When movie producers don’t want to be associated with their projects, they plaster the pseudonym Alan Smithee on the marquee of truly awful films. When faceless, profit-hungry companies don’t want to be mixed up with a product, they stonewall reporters, making truth finding much more difficult. Especially in the case of a drug like Spice.
Spice, also known as K2, is the name given to synthetic cannabis compounds that are sold on the black market and semi-legally in head shops and gas stations throughout the U.S. The substance is unregulated and has sent tens of thousands of users to emergency rooms, and may be a factor in several deaths.
What makes the drug “semi-legal” is that, due to its synthetic nature, it cannot be banned outright. A simple change in formula would skirt such a ban. Instead, the federal government and several states have sought to keep spice off the streets by banning individual substances in the drugs, namely the active ingredients known as synthetic cannabinoids.
In 2011, the U.S. government banned five such substances: JWH-018, JWH-073, JWHY-200, CP-47,497, and cannabicyclohexanol, labeling them as Schedule I narcotics — alongside cannabis and heroin.
Take another look at that list. Three of the drug names start with JWH and the other two don’t. Why? Because three of the drugs were developed by one man, a researcher at Clemson University in South Carolina, who was doing work related to cannabinoids in the mid 1990s. In contrast, CP-47,497 was developed many years earlier in a laboratory that belonged to giant pharmaceutical company Pfizer — something it’s been mum about ever since. (The final drug, cannabicycolhexanol, is an analog of CP-47,497 and was created at the same time, but received a much better name).
All five substances were banned because they showed up in Spice packets that harmed people, according to the Federal Register. That means that the knowledge created by Pfizer left its lab and got into the hands of nefarious drug pushers, who used it to skirt cannabis laws and offer unknowing users a “legal high” that was a far cry from safe.
There’s no evidence that Pfizer has created or distributed any Spice-like drug. It was just the first entity to successfully synthetize cannabinoids. But in creating a new kind of substance, Pfizer opened Pandora’s Box. That, itself, is not a crime. And synthetic cannabinoids have a legitimate role to play in scientific research, and maybe treatment on day. But that doesn’t mean that the creator of a substance bears no blame for its creation.
The Western cannon is rich with the stories of guilt at creators who bring something destructive into the world — Dr. Frankenstein, The Matrix, the guy who invented the Keurig coffee machine. Add to this – parents are largely responsible for the actions of their children, legally. Pfizer may not have not be responsible for the deaths associated with Spice, but without Pfizer, would Spice exist at all?
There’s a possibility that the Clemson research would have gone ahead without the pioneering work of Big Pharma before it. Undoubtedly, someone else would have developed a way to synthesize cannabis at some point, given our technical know-how and the benefits associated with the plant.
But in the hands of another developer, would Spice still happen? Doubtful.
There’s another way the story could be told — an alternative history version. Picture a world in which Pfizer creates the compound CP-47,497 and begins high-level, intense testing of their new drug, instead of stuffing the results in a drawer somewhere.
After finding out about its health-promoting properties, the company develops a legal drug based off the promise of synthetic cannabis. They make a product that has most of the benefits of cannabis, without the legal hassle.
To get it market-ready, Pfizer greases the hands of politicians, who allow it to be sold medicinally, following approval from the FDA, which is easily obtained. The drug becomes a legitimate anti-inflammatory treatment or pain reliever or anti-anxiety medicine that is tightly controlled and available only by prescription. Thanks to Pfizer’s management, the drug is manufactured under strict conditions that ensure every dose is identical and produces consistent, predictable results in patients.
Because it’s legal, a black market for synthetic cannabis never gets off the ground. Even users who traffic in the synthetic compound sell illegally procured Pfizer pills, not off-market Spice packets. Those thousands of people never go to the E.R. or die. Society wins.
Or does it?