If you’re not fully familiar with the excessive gnarliness of “synthetic weed” spice or K2, just search YouTube for “spice od” or “synthetic weed.” You’ll see videos of people having seizures, losing motor control and writhing in the street, babbling in tongues like they’re in a religious trance, speaking slowly like they have a serious cognitive defect, freezing like a statue for minutes at a time, screaming and drooling.
You’ll also see a lot of people calling ambulances. Several news outlets are saying the US and UK are in the middle of a full on epidemic of spice use. It’s cheap, potent and, because of its diverse and constantly changing chemical structure, virtually impossible to search for in a drug test or press criminal charges for. That’s why more and more people are using it at astronomical rates. This last April saw a 550% (not a typo) increase in reported spice-related illnesses versus the month before, according to statistics from the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported in The Guardian. Spice is also addictive and overdose can be fatal.
So, why is it constantly compared to marijuana, an organic plant that causes none of the same nasty side-effects and is actually proven to be medically beneficial? When officials or media outlets talk about spice, it’s not uncommon for them to call it a “more potent” form of cannabis. In fact, “synthetic marijuana” has almost nothing to do chemically with organic marijuana. Comparing the two is a little like comparing chewing a coca leaf in the Amazon with smoking a crack rock, two completely different experiences with two completely different sets of bodily effects. Except that unlike the coca plant and crack, marijuana and spice don’t even have the same active ingredients.
What is spice?
The similarities between cannabis and spice begin and end with the fact that both work by affecting your brain’s cannabinoid receptors, which means they both consist of cannabinoids. But, just as the two most well known cannabinoids (THC and CBD) react with your brain very differently (one gets you high and the other doesn’t), so too do the hundreds of synthetically derived cannabinoids in spice.
Synthetic cannabinoids have been popular on the scene since hundreds of them were created in a research project in South Carolina’s Clemson University. The study began in the mid 80’s but, the results weren’t published until 2006. The point of the project (which was incidentally funded by a grant from the US government) was to deepen our biological understanding of the body’s cannabinoid system.
John W. Huffman, the study’s head researcher, told VICE News that after publishing the data, he knew it was only matter of time before “some enterprising individual would try to smoke it.” And they did. Ever since, the law has been trying to play catch-up with spice manufacturers. One kind of synthetic cannabinoid is sold, then it gets outlawed, so producers tweak their compounds and put them back on the street in a form that is technically not outlawed. There are federal laws against spice and additional laws in each of our country’s 50 states, but they still can’t keep up. Even when they can, the drug is so popular and difficult to test for that many police don’t even know what the protocol is when they find someone possessing or selling it.
Most of the spice on the market in the US comes from East Asia. According to VICE News, many of the factories making it also produce household chemicals, then sloppily spray their untested, unregulated cannabinoids on dried out plant matter and sell it to overseas suppliers as a side business. These haphazard and unsafe production methods are the reason why some batches of spice are much more intense than others. Not only can they be very different from each other chemically, some also have a much higher concentration of cannabinoids than others.
Today, VICE reports that spice is sold on the streets of New York for as little as $5 a bag or $1 a joint. It has especially gained popularity among the nation’s homeless, youth and prison populations.
Why you should stop calling it “synthetic marijuana”
It would be a tall order to try to change the name of a drug after it’s already become big. Except that nobody calls it “synthetic marijuana,” “synthetic cannabis” or “synthetic weed,” except for the media and authorities quoted in the media. In the research we’ve done, people on the street, the ones actually smoking it call it spice or K2 or by particular brands like Smacked.
In VICE’s extensive spice reporting, they talked to New York City police who say they sometimes can’t tell the difference between organic and “synthetic marijuana” in the field. Since marijuana has become partially decriminalized in the city, many of them don’t bother to make arrests over spice. Not that police should be arresting more drug users and drug addicts for possession, but it is troubling to think that police aren’t enforcing laws concerning a seriously destructive narcotic because they think it’s similar to a harmless drug when the two have about as much in common in terms of their effects as Aspirin and heroin.
Cannabinoids aren’t even specific to cannabis in the natural world. They appear in diverse forms of flowers, trees, shrubs and fungi. Comparing synthetic cannabinoids to marijuana is not only misleading about how dangerous spice is, it also makes cannabis look bad at a crucial time for both federal and state marijuana regulation.