Did you hear the one about the Louisiana Department of Corrections cadet accused of smuggling “synthetic marijuana” into a state prison? It happened in Baton Rouge this Thursday, and it is events like this that muddy the waters when we start talking about cannabis legalization.
This kind of confusion can be bad for legalization and cannabis reform efforts in the day and age of “fake news”, and since spice is making a big comeback it is important that we do all we can do educate the public about the differences between these potentially harmful synthetic substances and marijuana that comes from the cannabis plant. It is important that the public understands that the chemicals that have been labeled by some as “synthetic cannabis”, or “spice,” could not be further from the therapeutic substance that lawmakers and citizens have already legalized in over half the country. The further legalization of marijuana, not prohibition, is what will remove spice from the equation.
What is spice and why is it so bad?
It’s not from your pantry, and it’s not the second highest summit in the world, but Spice (sometimes referred to as K2) is the name given to a dangerous type of synthetic chemicals that attempt to mimic the effects of marijuana on the human body. Unfortunately, many spice users have learned the hard way that it is nothing like cannabis (which has never caused an overdose death in all of recorded history) and can land you in the hospital faster than you can say the words “not for human consumption”. A quick call to a local poison control line confirmed that calls about the substance come in daily.
Spice in its smokable form tends to look like marijuana “shake,” but it is actually comprised of chopped herbs and can vary in color because no two combinations of spice are quite the same. But you can light up the spices from your kitchen and not get the same effect that you would from spice, and that’s because the “high” comes from the herbs being sprayed or soaked in a cocktail of synthetic cannabinoids. Marijuana flowers (or buds) obtained from the cannabis plant deliver mind-altering effects from a compound known as Tetrahydrocannabidiol (THC). But spice is doused in chemicals with names like JWH-018, JWH-073, JWH-200, AM-2201 UR-144, XLR-11, AKB4, cannabicyclohexanol, and AB-CHMINACA, chemicals that affect the human brain differently than naturally-occurring phytocannabinoids do. Some are 100 times more potent than THC and can operate directly on the brain’s receptors separately from the endocannabinoid system.
The effects of this synthetic drug can include high blood pressure and heart attacks, blurred vision, vomiting, seizures, hallucinations, severe anxiety, and paranoia. Spice is not legal, though some clever packaging and marketing tactics have allowed spice to be occasionally sold in headshops and online marketplaces all over the world.
What should consumers look out for?
Just like the real stuff, fake marijuana can come labeled with quirky names, like Annihilation, Black Mamba, Scooby Snax, and Mojo. There are up to 500 different kinds of spice, but they aren’t named in reference to strains or cultivars of the cannabis plant. Plus, now that vaping is a hot trend in cannabis culture, synthetic marijuana makers haven’t missed the opportunity to turn their product into e-cigarettes, vape pens, and e-liquid. Look out for anything labeled as herbal incense or “herbal smoking blends” and stay away. The package may also list these herbs as ingredients:
- Canavalia Maritima (coastal jack-bean)
- Nymphaea caerulea (Blue Egyptian water lily)
- Scutellaria nana (dwarf skullcap)
- Pedicularis Densiflora (Indian warrior)
- Leonotis leonurus (lion’s tail)
- Zornia Latifolia (maconha brava)
- Nelumbo nucifera (lotus)
- Leonurus Sibiricus (honeyweed)
However, when spice products are analyzed, they don’t usually contain plant materials listed on the ingredients list. Packaged spice sometimes contains a warning that it is “Not for Human Consumption.”
As for the Cadet Jackson in Louisiana, he was arrested Tuesday during a routine search of employees, just two days after three inmates at the Louisville Metro Jail in Kentucky overdosed on spice. He was fired on the spot, charged with felony introduction of contraband, and taken to Iberville Parish Jail. The same thing would have likely happened to him had he been caught smuggling real marijuana into the prison, the difference being that no one could have potentially died from ingesting marijuana.