A new drug has taken hold on streets across Europe and North America. Tribes of strangers are staggering around, looking lost and mumbling to passersby before passing out whenever their legs and minds can take no more. The drug is most widely known as “spice,” and newspapers — particularly right-wing tabloid newspapers — are having a field day.
“Zombie spice users are pushing Britain’s emergency services to the brink,” warns The Sun. A “spice nightmare” is turning city centers into “real-life horror movies,” says The Mirror. Spice “turns users into the ‘living dead’ in minutes and is ruining lives across Britain,” says The Daily Mail.
But what’s the real story? The gutter press has and still does demonize relatively harmless drugs like weed and ecstasy — is spice really as dangerous as they say it is? And what the hell is it, anyway?
Is Spice Fake Weed?
The truth is, it’s complicated. Spice (AKA K2) is not just a single drug, but a wide range of laboratory-made chemicals designed to mimic the effects of the well-known psychoactive compound in marijuana called THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol. The keyword here, though, is mimic.
THC in marijuana works by latching onto cannabinoid receptors in the brain. The chemicals in spice do the same thing, but can be over 100 times more potent and produce wildly different effects compared to actual weed. The only real similarities between spice and weed is the way it works and the fact that you smoke it.
To make things more complicated, the combinations of chemicals in spice are changing all the time, leading to slightly different effects and levels of potency between each separate batch. There are potentially hundreds or even thousands of variations being pushed out of dodgy labs in Russia and China.
No matter what the combination is, though, the powdery substance formed is carted off to Europe and North America and sprayed onto plant matter like sage, damiana or even tea leaves. After that, the “spice” is placed into eye-catching packaging and sold by small-time dealers and certain “herbal” shops. Spice has been illegal in the U.S. since 2013, and in the U.K. since May, 2016.
What Kind of Chemicals Are Being Used and Where Did This All Start?
Perhaps surprisingly, it all started with the cheerful geezer you see above. In the mid-’90s, an American chemist named John Huffman and his colleagues at Clemson University were studying the impact of cannabis on the human brain. The work involved creating synthetic compounds that acted in a similar way, which led to the synthesis of a compound called JWH-018 (JHW being John’s initials).
While most of the product that reaches the streets today doesn’t include JWH-018 — rather, it contains developments of it, which are often untested and unreliable — that compound was to be the match that lit the fuse on the synthetic cannabis nightmare we’re faced with today.
Huffman, now 84, recalled to the Washington Post the first time he heard about the drug. A German blogger had sent him a news article describing a new drug one man had smoked: it was called spice. “I thought it was sort of hilarious at the time,” he said. “Then I started hearing about some of the bad results, and I thought, ‘Hmm, I guess someone opened Pandora’s box.'”
“I was experimenting for good,” he told the Sunday Times, in a separate interview. “Could I have known? No. Marijuana has been around for hundreds of years, its effects are well known and you cannot kill yourself with it, [but] you can kill yourself with the synthetics.”
So, What Does It Do to You?
“It’s like a scene out of a zombie movie, a horrible scene,” said Brian Arthur, 38, who began live-streaming on his way to work in Brooklyn, New York after seeing three people collapse. “This drug truly paralyzes people.”
Wherever you find spice, you’ll find witnesses saying the same thing. Users appear to be on another planet, and that’s pretty much how they themselves describe it, too. Matthew Nuttall, an ex-spice addict from Manchester, told Britain’s Metro newspaper: “You just feel braindead half the time. They say people look like zombies, and that’s how it feels.
“The first time, I can’t even explain what it was like. It just blew my head off. I thought ‘never again.’ It’s just such a heavy high. It’s so intense,” he continued. “’The first high lasted about one hour, but it really felt a lot longer. It’s like you’re there but you can’t communicate. You’re alive in there, but you can’t see it on the outside. You just feel braindead.”
Precisely how you feel after smoking spice will likely depend on the specific combination of chemicals used and, more worryingly perhaps, the concentration of the substance on the herbs. Unlike natural cannabis, the stuff that gets you high is sprayed onto the plant matter, which leaves the possibility that negligent producers can unwittingly create highly concentrated “hotspots” within a single bag.
These two factors make it difficult for scientists – and even users themselves – to give an accurate description (or profile, if you will) of the effects and risks of the drug. Low to moderate usage appears to produce feelings of warmth, happiness and relaxation, as well as occasional confusion, paranoia and anxiety. So far, so bud.
However, the effects are said to be much stronger than herbal cannabis and pose much greater risks. While many of us will have had that slightly disturbing increased heart rate after smoking a joint a bit too fast, there are signs that it could be even more extreme when using synthetic cannabis. There are numerous reports of people having heart attacks and strokes – and even dying – after taking the drug. Cases have also been reported of kidney and liver damage and severe psychosis.
The New York Times has also reported a sharp rise in visits to emergency rooms and calls to poison control centers across America, resulting in several deaths; largely down to spice.
Well, Why Are People Smoking It Then?
The main reasons people smoke spice are that it’s both strong and cheap. Naturally, that makes it appealing to vulnerable sections of society, like the homeless. In a Guardian article looking at the spice epidemic ravaging Manchester’s inner city center, two rough sleepers — John and Steve, 52 and 35 — explain that spice has replaced heroin, crack and even alcohol as the drug of choice.
“You can go get a fiver, buy half a gram and it’ll knock you out for a few hours,” says John. “It’s better than buying a bottle of White Ace [cider].”
“I have tried heroin and it’s worse than that,” says Steve, who tells the Guardian he’s had friends die from smoking spice, and woke up in a hospital bed the last time he smoked it.“I don’t touch the stuff any more, it doesn’t agree with me.”
Spice can make hours seem like minutes, days seem like hours, and months seem like days. When you combine that with feelings of happiness and complete mental blackouts for hours on end, you can totally understand why somebody in tough circumstances may see appeal in such a drug. That’s why it’s important to look beyond the dehumanizing “zombie” accusations you’ll see in the press and try to understand people’s motivations for using spice.
How Do I Tell the Difference Between Weed and Spice?
If you’ve had even the smallest amount of experience with marijuana, you’ll know when you’ve copped some fake goods. Firstly, spice will never be sold in buds because, as mentioned above, it’s a mixture of dried household herbs and plant matter sprayed with chemicals.
You should always be wary with any crumbly cannabis sold loose rather than in nice tender buds, but especially if there are lots of variances in color and texture. Spice also has a chemical smell to it, which will interact with whatever shitty herbs it’s been sprayed on.
To point out the obvious, if it doesn’t look like weed, smell like weed, or taste like weed — it isn’t weed.
How Is Spice Addiction Being Treated?
Because spice is a relatively new drug, its users struggle to find specific treatment or treatment programs to get themselves clean. Typically, addicts are prescribed medications and therapies that address the drug’s psychotic and/or neurological symptoms, which may mean a lengthy amount of time in care — particularly if in the patient is suffering from schizophrenia.
Both inpatient and outpatient treatment is offered, depending on in which country you live, before undergoing “aftercare” treatment. Aftercare ranges from psychotherapy to contingency management and sober living resources.
People who use Spice may also face a range of withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety, irritability, nausea, and sleep disturbances.
If you or someone you know is struggling with spice or other drugs, there are organizations that can help right now. Talk to Frank is available for British residents to call on 0300 123 6600, as well as offering online live chat and email services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week here.
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- Main & Featured Image: Spencer Platt / Getty Images