What is it?
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Spice refers to a collection of herbs or plant material which has been sprayed with synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists, often referred to as synthetic cannabinoids, producing a cannabis-like effect when smoked.
More than one type of synthetic cannabinoid has been identified, but they all mimic the psychoactive effects of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active principle in cannabis. Most compounds come from the JWH chemical family, such as JWH-018.
Some of the base herbs themselves have a cannabis-like effect when smoked. These herbs include blue water lily (Nymphaea caerulea), dwarf skullcap (Scutellaria nana), Maconha brava (Zornia latifolia or Z. diphylla), Siberian motherwort (Leonurus sibiricus), Indian warrior (Pedicularis densiflora) and lion’s tail (Leonotis leonuru) (1). Large amounts of Vitamin E have also been found in some samples, possibly to mask detection of the cannabinoids.
Prior to the drug’s classification under the Misuse of Drugs Act, Spice was being sold in ‘headshops’ or on the internet. It was more expensive than regular cannabis with a three gram packet (enough for about half a dozen joints) retailing for around £30. At the time of writing, it is not known what impact the change in legislation will have on either sales or price.
Spice is marketed under a variety of trade names that have ‘spice’ in the title, such as ‘Spice Gold’ or ‘Spice Diamond’, or under other names such as ‘Yucatan Fire’, ‘Solar Flare’, ‘Space Truckin’ and so on. China and the Far East appear to be the main areas for production.
There are no figures for prevalence of the use of Spice. However, the number of sites that were selling Spice prior to the classification of the drug suggests a substantial user-base in the UK and elsewhere.
From 23 December 2009, synthetic cannabinoids were classified alongside cannabis as a Class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
In July 2009, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) recommended that Spice be controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act (2). This recommendation was made on the basis that Spice contains synthetic cannabinoids which could pose an equal or potentially higher risk than naturally occurring THC, due to their method of manufacture. The ACMD also recommended that a generic definition of synthetic cannabinoids should be used to cover any new compounds that might be developed by those trying to get round the law. In August 2009, the government announced that Spice would become a Class B drug along with cannabis (3).
Enforcing this law may prove difficult. Only those samples containing controlled cannabinoids will be illegal; those just containing psychoactive herbs will not. Forensic testing will be the only way to determine the contents of any given sample.
Effects and risks
Smoking Spice gives the user a similar experience to smoking cannabis and lead to feelings of relaxation or even euphoria. Other less pleasant effects may include a raised pulse rate, dry mouth, lowering of inhibitions, dizziness, agitation or paranoia.
After considering the limited evidence available, the ACMD concluded that with respect to classification under the Misuse of Drugs Act, the harms associated with the synthetic cannabinoids “are broadly commensurate with those of cannabis”(4).
However, the ACMD also noted in its report that Spice products have the potential to be more harmful than cannabis, due to their method of manufacture and the fact that the compounds used and their strength varies between samples. Evidence indicates that synthetic cannabinoids can be anything up to ten times stronger than the THC found in cannabis plants. Given the product’s inconsistency, the user has no idea what they are buying. Packets of Spice can contain anything between 0.2% and 3% cannabinoid (5).
At present there is not a significant body of clinical literature detailing the problems emanating from the use of Spice. One case, cited in a public health journal, described a patient from Germany who became dependent on Spice after eight months continuous daily use of ‘Spice Gold’ (6). There have been accounts, also from Germany, of several hospitalisations through undefined ‘overdose’ (presumably manifested as panic attacks or feelings of paranoia).
(1) EMCDDA Understanding the ‘Spice’ phenomenon
(2) ACMD Report on the major cannabinoid agonists http://drugs.homeoffice.gov.uk/publication-search/acmd/acmd-report-agonists.html
(3) Home Office press release announcing ban on legal highs such as spice
(4) ACMD op. cit.
(5) Article, Chemistry World Royal Society of Chemistry
(6) Article, Deutsches Arzteblatt, PubMed Central