The synthetic cannabis product typically sold as “spice” or “fake pot” promises all the benefits of smoking weed without any repercussions, but health agencies have reported a variety of serious and sometimes fatal consequences.
Synthetic cannabinoids — often called “spice,” “smoke” or “K2”— are herbal blends that include basil and oregano sprayed with chemicals and sold as incense or potpourri in head shops, gas stations, convenience stores and online.
The synthetic cannabinoids sprayed on the herbal concoction are harder to regulate, and are constantly evolving to avoid legal consequences. Before 2011, no synthetic cannabinoids were listed on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s schedule of drugs. But as of 2015, 15 synthetic cannabinoids have been classified as Schedule I by the DEA. Such a designation is shared by natural cannabis and cocaine, among others..
When smoked, spice is meant to resemble ground marijuana buds and create psychoactive euphoric effects akin to those created by tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, without detection on drug tests.
But smoking spice has had serious reported side effects including psychotic episodes, paranoia, intense anxiety, uncontrollable body movements, seizures, kidney failure, severe bleeding, bruising, coughing blood, bloody urine and stool and even death.
And unlike cannabis, the synthetic drug is reportedly highly addictive.
As recently as April 2018, health officials in the Midwest and East Coast reported synthetic cannabis containing rat poison. In Illinois, 56 people were poisoned, and at least two people died, from one of the most recent episodes involving contaminated spice.
Synthetic cannabis was initially created more than 30 years ago in labs to study the effects on the endocannabinoid system in the body. Scientists hoped to investigate whether cannabinoids could be used to treat painful diseases and cancers.
The first reported use of spice was in Europe in 2006. Spice was first detected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in November of 2008.
The European Drug Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction now monitors 620 psychoactive drugs, of which nearly a third are synthetic cannabinoids.
There are indications that the use of spice may be declining.
Since 2011, the American Association of Poison Control Centers has reported at least 1,000 cases of poisoning from spice each year. Those cases peaked in 2015, with 7,797. In 2017, the fewest cases were reported with 1,952 poisonings, the lowest since the agency began keeping track.
As of March 31, 2018, 462 cases of spice poisoning have been reported.
Similarly, a survey of nearly 44,000 students in 2017 showed a dramatic drop in use among eighth, 10th and 12th graders in the U.S. since 2012, when spice was reported as the second-most widely used substance after natural cannabis.