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Legal High on the Way Out

DEA, Armed Forces Ban Spice
By Brett Hutchins

Spice, K2, Blaze and Red X Dawn are hot commodities. These synthetic cannabis products—fake marijuana—are sold legally in local tobacco and “head” shops and marketed as natural or herbal incense. There are no age limits on who can buy Spice and it can’t be detected in routine drug tests.

The impact of smoking Spice is unpredictable, and the effects range from mellowness to intense paranoia. After reports of bizarre behavior from a number of sailors stationed at Pensacola NAS in 2009, the military moved to place businesses that sell it off-limits.

At the first of the year, the Marine Corps Forces Command explicitly prohibited Marines from using a number of legal substances, including Spice, to achieve an altered state of consciousness or a drug-like “high.” The order came three days after a Jan. 24 Jacksonville, N.C. Daily News article about two junior Marines who were told they may face court-martial after obtaining packets of Spice in town and smoking it aboard Camp Lejeune.

Last month, the DEA placed an emergency ban on all “fake pot” chemicals used to make Spice and its competitors so that the FDA can study their effects and safety. Stores have until Dec. 24 to clear their shelves, and anyone found in possession of Spice after the deadline will face punishment similar to that of those found in possession of cocaine.

Spice is similar in appearance to marijuana, and has a sweet smell similar to fig cookie bars. The texture of the drug is that of soft, dry herbs. The usual symptoms of being under Spice’s influence are dilated pupils, slightly slurred speech and the appearance of being drunk without the smell of alcohol.

“It does help me relax for a while, but there’s also an intense paranoia that comes with it,” noted Tim, a UWF student and regular user.

In many cases, its effects are the exact opposite than expected. Users across the country have cited migraine-strength headaches, nausea, and lack of blood circulation throughout the body. This can cause major concern for many people, but especially those with heart issues.

Mike, another UWF student with a rare heart disorder, spoke bluntly about this with the IN. “I’ve dabbled in the stuff, and it had a huge effect on my breathing and heartbeat. It almost felt as if my heart was beating out of my chest. It’s scary that there aren’t more blatant health warnings on the packaging.”

The path to popularity of synthetic cannabis is a long and tangled one. For a substance whose prevalence has traveled the globe and back again, it’s odd that it all began in a small southern town, Greenville, S.C., at Clemson University. In the mid-1990s, chemist John Huffman concocted a compound eponymously named JWH-018. It mirrored the effects of the active ingredient in pot: THC.

After a brief honeymoon period with the American public, the compound drifted into relative obscurity. In 2004, a London company introduced a blend of compounds that has become the current version of the popular Spice. By 2009, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, their version of the DEA, reported that synthetic cannabis was available for purchase in 21 of its 30 participating countries. Inevitably, the wave of popularity crossed the pond to the United States.

Though Spice and K2 have developed a strong following from those wanting a pot “high” without worrying about cops or employer drug tests, the long-term effects of the combination of chemical substances in the fake pot have yet to be studied. Even Huffman, the creator of the first synthetic cannabis compound, warns of the danger of K2. “It’s like playing Russian roulette. You don’t know what it’s going to do to you,” Huffman recently told the Greenville News.

The ways synthetic cannabis has been pushed to its consumers has been devious at best, and a key to its success. Its packaging boldly states that it is “unfit for human consumption,” but is also billed as “natural incense.” What’s suspiciously absent from the ingredients list is the mixture of chemical compounds that its popularity depends on. There are so many different brands producing the material that it’s impossible to know exactly what you’re getting with your purchase.

That’s where the FDA comes in. Until recently, Spice could be easily purchased at local tobacco shops if the customer is over the age of 18. It was considered the same as buying a pack of cigarettes. No hassle, no stigma—until the DEA ban announcement.

“Until the risks associated with ingesting these products and chemicals can be studied and understood, there is no place for them on the shelves of any legitimate business,” White House Drug Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske said in the statement.

Local shops that sell Spice hate to see a popular product taken off their shelves, but will comply with the ban. “We depend on Spice for a large portion of our business,” one shop owner told IN. “The NAS ban hurt us considerably, and if the FDA follows through on what they’ve stated, we will have to find ways to adapt.”

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