Bizarro World

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Bizarro World: Where up is down and fake cannabis is legal and real pot isn't.
Public domain (NASA)

In November, InSys Therapeutics, an Arizona-based pharmaceutical company, donated $500,000 to the successful campaign to defeat a marijuana legalization initiative in their home state. In December, the company’s ex-CEO and six other former top executives were arrested and accused of bribing doctors, defrauding insurance companies and fueling America’s opioid crisis by way of the illegal marketing of Fetanyl. InSys’ stocks plummeted, but a certain small group of analysts were optimistic.

These positive expectations were largely based on the company’s new drug Syndros, a synthetic marijuana compound that had been granted approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment of anorexia in AIDS patients and nausea and vomiting in patients undergoing chemotherapy. Last week the drug received preliminary approval from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the company gained a minor bump in stock valuation to boot.

So after a year of duplicitous behavior by InSys, their fake version of marijuana has earned a Schedule II classification and rights to a potentially profitable and patent-protected new market. But the real marijuana is still a Schedule I drug currently being threatened by a federal crackdown. Welcome to Bizarro World.

Bizarro World (originally htraE — Earth spelled backwards) is a fictional planet from DC’s Superman comics from the 1960s but which many of us know about because of a particularly memorable episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine substitutes her old crew for a new one with an uncanny resemblance to Jerry, Kramer and George, but who act like their exact opposites. As Jerry says, “in Bizarro World up is down, down is up. [You] say hello when [you] leave and goodbye when [you] arrive.”

Similarly, for those of us living in real-world legalized marijuana markets, the whole Syndros situation seems too odd to be trustworthy. How is it possible that a synthetic oral solution of the cannabinoid dronabinol (a pharmaceutical version of tetrahydrocannabinol, otherwise known as THC) breaks through rigid scheduling of the Controlled Substances Act while botanical or “whole plant” marijuana is totally blockaded?

With the DEA, FDA and InSys all predictably tight-lipped, we’re left grappling with what has become an all-too-familiar line of questioning in this day and age: What is the difference between real and fake and why does it matter?

Or, as Guy Debord asks in his 1967 book Society of the Spectacle, how do we end up in a place where the authentic is replaced with artificial? How do we come to live “in a world which really is topsy-turvy, [where] the true is a moment of the false?”

It’s not so simple, because synthetic does not necessarily equivocate with falsity. Its Greek origin — syntithenai — merely means “put together.” What is “real,” then, seems to have less to do with substance itself than it does with our own cultural persuasion and positioning.

As painted by Debord, the threat of the spectacle is that the proliferation of capitalist markets and media will completely replace direct experience with its interpretation, leaving society at large prone to manipulation.

This is what creates a world where we can look at a meager inauguration crowd and actually engage in (weeks worth of) conversation about whether or not there is validity to the claim that it is the “biggest in history.” Or how InSys can simultaneously sell addictive Fentanyl and its antidote, Buprenorphine Naloxone. Or how marijuana remains federally illegal while synthetic THC is granted medical and political legitimacy by the FDA and DEA. Collectively, we are struggling to distinguish between experience and its interpretation.

But the thing about real marijuana is that it doesn’t just palliate pain or rouse the appetite, it induces an experience of which those effects are a part. THC is a psychoactive substance — it’s what makes marijuana marijuana — but on InSys’ website that property is portrayed differently — as a side effect: “Syndros may cause psychiatric and cognitive effects and impair mental and/or physical abilities.”

Do you feel better now that getting high comes with a warning and a prescription? InSys sure hopes you do as they “expect to convert a large portion of the market to Syndros as well as expand the market through direct detailing to physicians, highlighting the improved product profile of Syndros.” Through this sort of marketing and with their newfound DEA clearance, a few analysts think they will be able to double their stock price based on the release of this one drug alone.

But there is something deep down in me that doubts we can be so thoroughly duped as to mistake Syndros for cannabis, thraE for Earth, Bizarro Jerry for real Jerry. As Susan Sontag asserts in her final book, Regarding the Pain of Others, there is a limit to the trance of the spectacle:

‘’To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment. … It assumes that everyone is a spectator. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world … There are hundreds of millions of television watchers who are far from inured to what they see on television. They do not have the luxury of patronizing reality.”