The Truth About Synthetic Marijuana Known as Spice

Sorting out reality from rumor in recent drug scares

The media frenzy over flakka – a drug so mind-bending it led a Florida man to impale himself climbing a fence at the Fort Lauderdale Police Station – may be dying down, but America's obsession with the danger and mystery of synthetic drugs is not going anywhere soon. This week, the New York Times turned its attention back to synthetic marijuana (a.k.a. spice or spike), the ever-evolving, poorly-understood substance that has spent the past several years in sensational headlines. According to the Times, spice is ravaging the impoverished population of Syracuse, New York, sending the city's down-trodden into violent fits that include full-on animalistic attacks on emergency responders (complete with scary "growling"), seizures and vomit-hurling.

The worst part, however, isn't the horror stories about spice users, or the Times' assertion that spice is highly addictive: It's that nobody knows what to do about it. In Syracuse, threatening to shut down stores selling synthetic marijuana only pushed the market underground, and had no effect on the overdose rate – which the Times said has sunk this spring "just as mysteriously as it rose" a few months earlier.

To respond to the crisis, prosecutors like Carl Freedman, the assistant United States attorney for the Northern District of New York, are stepping up prohibition efforts by targeting synthetic drug kingpins. "If you keep taking out smoke shop after smoke shop, you're putting your finger in the dike," Freedman told the Times. "If you take out the manufacturer and shut his business down, you stop production for a while."

The problem with this is that, as with other illegal substances, arresting a kingpin may slow down production “for a while," but new suppliers will always be quick to provide a product in demand. We've seen this cycle over and over again in the past several years, beginning with spice, and then bath salts, and most recently, flakka. These drugs are desirable to users for obvious reasons: First of all, they get you high. Second, they're cheap – as cheap as $1 a joint for spice. And third, you can use them without failing a drug test.

Thanks to the Internet and the easy availability of chemicals that are often purchased from China and then packaged as products like spice, the U.S. – and the rest of the world – has entered a new stage of drug manufacturing. Synthetic drugs have entered the market through outdated legal loopholes that ban specific substances like cannabis, but not synthetic cannabinoids that mimic its effects. Though the U.S. has closed these loopholes for the most part, the floodgates are already open, and the desire for semi-legal or once-legal highs has passed the point of return. The prohibition of marijuana has created the demand for a legal alternative, and that alternative has now taken on a life of its own.

Now, law enforcement is fighting the new drugs with old drug war tactics that may actually make the problem worse. To start, making synthetic marijuana a Schedule I drug, as the U.S. did in 2011, makes spice incredibly difficult for scientists to research, just like old-school cannabis. The less we can research the drug, the less we can know about what causes its adverse affects – and why they plague some users, but not others. That last part is crucial to understanding this issue. According to a 2014 survey by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, synthetic marijuana was the second most popular illegal drug among high-schoolers, with more than 5 percent of 12th graders reporting using it in the past year (a significant decrease from 11.3 percent in 2012). If every user experienced the extreme violent, animalistic reactions the Times describes, high schools would have to double as zoos.

The information gap strikes again when a spice overdose happens, leaving first-responders uncertain of exactly which chemicals were ingested. As the Times notes, crime laboratories won't test substances "unless it's a criminal case" – so while it is possible that spice overdoses could be linked to certain chemicals used by certain suppliers, we don't know enough to educate the public about what to avoid.

Similarly, we don't have the knowledge to educate the public about how much spice is a safe versus dangerous dose. The problem in Syracuse may not be spice itself, but the irregularity of a product that is always in flux. When users are grabbing different brands made from different chemicals with different potencies, monitoring dosage is difficult, and may lead to the accidental ingestion of more than intended.

Even if all spice overdoses were the result of purposeful binging, it is also worth taking a closer look at the population the Times describes as falling victim to the drug: the poor. It's easy to pin pre-existing mental health issues associated with poverty (which could contribute to an adverse drug reaction) on a substance about which people know very little – just look at crack cocaine. And that kind of oversimplified thinking doesn't do anything for public health.