Regulation of Synthetic cannabinoids in Europe

Today the psychoactive impact of cannabis could be easily replaced by synthetic cannabinoids (THC, JWH, etc.) The human body intercepts them via cannabinoid receptors providing consumers with the relevant effect. This is the purpose why THC has been used to produce a big amount of ‘legal high’ goods purchased as a legal replacement for cannabis. In Europe, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) monitors the production and distribution of THC.

In the 2000s, ‘Legal high’ chemicals, which included JWH, have been widely distributed as ‘herbal smoking mixtures’. They do not consist of cannabis itself, but they make the very-same effect when smoked.

The origin of cannabinoids

In 2008, the German and Austrian researchers firstly came through the synthetic cannabinoid JWH-018, in a smoking mixture distributed under the name ‘Spice’. Later on, some cannabinoids were identified in so-called incense. Of course, many of such substances appeared a little bit soon, but among the first were Spice Silver, Spice Gold, and Yucatan Fire.

Scientists created many of the cannabinoids in order to treat several diseases and their symptoms. However, it was impossible to divide the necessary medical features from undesirable psychoactive impact. Nowadays, JWH is strictly monitored by the EU Early Warning System. It is noted, that by 2016 a total of 169 cannabinoids having been listed by EMCDDA.

Black market

Synthetic cannabinoids had a significant impact on the rapidly evolving ‘legal highs’ market. ‘Legal highs’ is an umbrella term used to describe non-regulated (new) psychoactive substances that are usually intended to mimic the effects of controlled drugs and are sold on the open market.

Chemical companies based in China produce most of the TNC that is used in ‘legal high’ products. In 2015, over 24 000 seizures of cannabinoids were made in Europe weighing more than 2 334 kg, over 400 kg of which was bulk powder. This represents an increase of almost 7 000 seizures and over 1.6 tons compared to 2014.

The discovery of processing and packaging facilities and large quantities of TNC in the Netherlands and Belgium suggests the involvement of organized crime in the distribution process. There is also evidence of a significant internet retail trade within Europe, with customs and police making regular seizures of small quantities of these products.

The story of code names

Many of the synthetic cannabinoids monitored by the EMCDDA through the EU Early Warning System have code names that relate to their discovery. In some cases, they are derived from the initials of the name of the scientists that synthesized them: e.g. ‘JWH’ compounds after John W. Huffman and ‘AM’ compounds after Alexandros Makriyannis. In other cases, code names may originate from the institution or company where they were first synthesized.


The EMCDDA has been closely monitoring developments relating to cannabinoids since their identification on the European market in 2008. However, there is a lot to be done to conquer the illegal usage of drugs.

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