Russell Hebets Sept. 1, 2016

This week, two men in Denver were indicted on 169 counts of operating a major Spice ring, here and across state lines. So what is Spice and why is it so dangerous?

Spice is a drug composed of synthetic cannabinoids and it is unregulated; therefore, it can be purchased by anyone wherever it is sold, usually places like convenience stores, smoke shops and online. It is advertised as synthetic marijuana and packaged in colorful and youthful ways; it is mainly marketed towards teens that may not have access to marijuana, whether it is legal in their state or not. Unfortunately, spice is nothing like marijuana and has become the underlying cause of several tragic deaths and terrible crimes.

How is Spice Made?

Spice (also called K2, Bliss, Cowboy Kush and Scooby Snax among others) is an herbal product that resembles tobacco or pot. It is really any harmless herb or plant matter that is chopped and sprayed with a chemical concoction of supposedly synthetic cannabinoids that are said to mimic the effects of THC.  It is the chemicals that are sprayed on the herbs that are the issue. These concoctions are unregulated and constantly tweaked, creating the inconsistent and sometimes dangerous consequences we hear about in the news. These chemical mixes mainly come from China and are fairly easy to obtain online. It is said that a nominal investment of $1500 can yield a profit of close to a quarter million dollars once processed and distributed.

Because many of the chemicals are legal in China and because the recipes change so often, it has been very difficult for the DEA to work with Chinese authorities or local labs to determine what is involved and how to address it.

How Does Spice Differ from THC?

While the effects of THC are relaxing and non-violent, the effects of Spice are very different and unpredictable. Some may not notice anything at all. Yet others may become agitated, aggressive, or even violent. The more common side effects include high blood pressure, seizures, vomiting, hallucinations and severe anxiety or paranoia. It is also known to cause heart attacks and death. Spice is considered highly addictive with severe physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms.

In 2014, one California family suffered a tragic loss. Their son, only 19, had tried Spice with a friend. He immediately felt terrible and went to sleep. Sadly, he never woke. The chemicals caused his brain to swell, cutting off the oxygen supply.

In addition to such horrific loss, police are increasingly confronted with erratic behavior as a result of Spice use.  This behavior not only endangers police and others bystanders, but also suppresses the pain receptors of someone who has taken Spice, thus exposing them to greater physical injury. ERs don’t always know what to do with victims of overdose since the chemical makeup of the product is ever-changing. In fact, many describe the effect on people as zombie like because they can appear dazed and unable to move, yet may suddenly act enraged.

Why is Spice so Appealing?

Spice is marketed to young people who may not understand or take seriously the risk of using it. Furthermore, Spice is popular among poor or homeless people because it is so inexpensive and easy to obtain. Lastly, it appeals to those who are subject to drug screens, like athletes or military personnel, since it is undetectable.

At the crux of its appeal is ignorance: many just don’t realize how dangerous it is. The product is advertised as a safe and legal high despite its dangerous side effects.

How is the Problem Being Addressed?

Because the chemicals involved are always changing and hard to detect, law enforcement has adopted other approaches to handling the problem. For one, they have started to target places that sell the product.

Another way the government may go after Spice makers and distributors is the Federal Analogue Act. This act, passed in 1986, allows drugs that are “substantially similar” to schedule I or II drugs to be treated in the same way. The act was designed to address the emergence of designer drugs that were not specifically banned or regulated. Thus, manufacturing operations may be shut down, product seized and individuals arrested related to Spice production and distribution. In the indictments here in Denver, the state also applied charges that violated the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act.

Police and doctors are increasingly aware of the presence of Spice and how to address it but that doesn’t make Spice less accessible right away. It’s vital to educate the public and especially young people about the dangers; and of course, in the legal state of Colorado, it’s probably best to just stick to the real thing.