Police officers see a juvenile in a small alleyway of a residential neighborhood in Guadalupe. Thinking he might be tagging, they stop to check for vandalism.
The young man isn’t vandalizing property, but he isn’t complying with their instructions, either. He’s sweaty, agitated, and strangely aggressive with the officers. In the weirdly flat language of police-speak, they “deployed a Taser to affect an arrest,” frying the teenager with an electrical current, handcuffing him, and bringing him in.
“He exhibited all the effects of being under the influence of a stronger narcotic,” said Gary Hoving, chief of police in Guadalupe and a former chief deputy with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office. “The assumption was that he was under the influence of something else, and then we found out it was spice.”
Spice is a class of designer drugs modeled after marijuana. The curious or the unwise can buy it from various shady corners of the Internet, and it’s often sold at head shops or liquor stores as herbal incense in small foil packets marked “not for human consumption.”
Atascadero was the first city in San Luis Obispo County to ban spice and synthetic bath salts; the ordinance passed with a quick and unanimous vote of the City Council in August 2014. Paso Robles and Morro Bay followed suit with similar bans, and as of press time, San Luis Obispo city officials were working with local law enforcement to get a synthetic drug ban before the City Council.
Farther south, the Guadalupe City Council, at Hoving’s request, voted to criminalize the sale and possession of spice in March of this year. Lompoc had done the same two years ago.
Many of the chemicals in spice look, more or less, like cannabinoids, the active chemicals found in marijuana—chiefly delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the infamous THC. The chemicals found in spice are structurally similar to delta-9 and bond with the same receptors in the brain.
Synthetic cannabinoid analogues, or SCAs, are similar in form to the compounds found in marijuana but have been tinkered with and tweaked on a structural level. Rings or chains of atoms may have been added here or subtracted there. These small changes can create many varieties of spice, with new variations seeming to spring eternal from anyone with a graduate-level understanding of pharmacology and a libertarian attitude toward introducing untested designer drugs into the market.
Dale Gieringer, director of the California Drug Policy Forum, said that people smoke spice because of prohibitions on marijuana. “Current laws against marijuana are a major factor in the demand for synthetic cannabinoids,” he told New Times by email. “One of the major attractions of spice is that it doesn’t show up positive on the standard drug tests. Therefore, workers who are subject to drug testing turn to it as a substitute for real marijuana, which tests positive for days or weeks after last use.”
Drug tests for marijuana actually look for antibodies produced to break down what’s left of the drug after it’s passed through the brain. Spice doesn’t spur the body to create those same antibodies, so users won’t fail a drug test for weed. Screens are available for the five most common varieties of spice, but there are literally hundreds on the market.
Unregulated and poorly understood, spice is a different class of drugs than pot. People who smoke spice become sweaty and agitated. They go through brutal withdrawals fraught with nightmares and vomiting. They sometimes have heart palpitations and twitchy muscles. Some users have been suddenly struck by strokes or heart attacks. And acute psychosis has been described in several cases.
Spice is very much a lab-created drug, but its creation wasn’t spurred by a money-hungry, drug-distributing mad scientist. JWH-018, perhaps the most famous synthetic cannabinoid analogue, was developed through a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The first three letters—JWH—come from John W. Huffman, a chemist at the University of Clemson in South Carolina. Huffman got a grant from the institute to do medical research but was constrained in what he could use those federal dollars to do.
Because marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug, it has no legitimate research or medical applications in the eyes of the federal government. As reported by New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, Huffman and his colleagues synthesized more than 400 SCAs with that grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse during the 1990s. A review of the “hijacking” of synthetic cannabinoids published by RTI International in 2011 reported that the institute hoped to expand research on marijuana’s potential for abuse and medicinal application. The synthetic chemicals found their way into the wrong hands, and those SCAs started showing up for sale as “herbal incense” around 2005.
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Huffman told New Times he didn’t want to talk, stating: “I have given a great many interviews on this subject, and I do not believe that I could add anything to that which has already been said.” If you Google his name, dozens of interviews show up. Huffman comes across as a gentle man horrified and saddened by widespread use of the chemicals he pioneered but never intended for recreational use.
Spice production is unregulated, but its synthetic cannabinoids are sometimes mixed with the solvent acetone. David Robles, a research assistant for the drug policy blog Crawford on Drugs, reported on a smoke shop that mixed up its own spice herbs in Tempe, Ariz. The shop reportedly sprayed 56 grams of pedicularis densiflora, or Indian warrior herb, with a solution mixed from 40 milliliters of acetone and 3.6 grams of a synthetic cannabinoid.
Other herbs can be added for flavor once the chemicals are already affixed to something like the warrior herb. Barbara Carreno, a spokesperson for the DEA, told The Fix her agency had seen spice “being mixed with rakes in feed troughs, other times in cement mixers … and on tarps in storage units or garages.”
The making of spice, as unregulated and DIY as it seems to be, is only the beginning of why several local cities now want to ban the drug. After spice is purchased and ingested, things get even less appealing. The devil, as they say, is in the details—and the details of spice come out when it meets the brain.
Your brain on spice
When spice is smoked, it acts on the endocannabinoid system in the brain, which affects most of the things our brains do. The short explanation is that the active chemicals in spice bond with a class of receptors called CB, which are about as common in the brain as white is on, well, white rice.
CB1 receptors are found in the brain; as Annalee Newitz reported for i09, “they’re responsible for the ‘high’ feeling when you smoke pot.” CB2 receptors are associated with immune response and found throughout the body. Spice and cannabis act on both.
According to Dale Fortin, a postdoctoral researcher at Oregon Health and Science University’s Zhong Lab in Portland, CB1 is the highest-expressed receptor of its class. “It is pretty much everywhere,” he said. Spice bonds to both CB1 and CB2, lighting up almost every part of the brain except for the stem.
The synthetic cannabinoids found in spice are generally what those in the neurobiological know call full agonists. They bind tightly with CB receptors and activate them completely. THC, by comparison, is known as a partial agonist, and although it binds to the same receptors, it generates a milder response.
And spice is also missing a key ingredient found in naturally grown weed: cannabidiol, or CBD. That’s the chemical in marijuana that makes you sleepy and calm. Different pot strains have different balances of CBD to THC, so you get different results depending on what you smoke, but cannabidiol seems to act as an important moderator for the effects of THC.
When concentrated and isolated, THC is a powerful stimulant. Fortin said that the best anecdotal evidence for this comes from the Bambatha Rebellion, where the Zulus struck back against colonial rule in South Africa at the beginning of the 20th century.
“The medicine man for the Zulu tribe gave them this proposed compound that would help them fight off the British,” he said. “The British accounts were that the Zulu warriors were anticipating all their movements, extremely quick.” That compound, according to Fortin, was nearly 100 percent THC.
A 30-year review put forth by neuroscientists at the University of São Paolo indicates that CBD acts as an anti-psychotic, calming and curbing that pure stimulant effect. It stabilizes the systems in the brain which are disrupted when THC or a synthetic cannabinoid light up a whole mess of CB receptors at once. This is the stuff that people use to treat epileptic seizures. Spice isn’t usually manufactured with CBD, so when it’s smoked those destabilizing effects can run unchecked.
There’s another dangerous bit of brain chemistry that could be going on with spice. Research from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences shows that some metabolites of synthetic cannabinoids—the compounds left over when the brain “digests” spice—are as effective at binding to those CB receptors as the drug itself.
“The synthetic metabolites seem to retain full activity relative to the parent compound,” Professor of Toxicology and Pharmacology Paul Prather told Forbes in August of 2014. The brain, in other words, does not know how to deactivate the SCAs, which stay potent even after the brain has broken them down.
According to the Journal of Psychopharmacology, American Poison Control Centers reported 7,000 calls claiming poisoning by synthetic cannabinoid in 2011; 60 percent of those calls were for victims under the age of 25.
Dr. Richard Geller is the director of the California Poison Control System (CPCS) site at Valley Children’s Hospital in Madera, Calif. Excluding cases of “polysubstance exposure,” where spice is used with alcohol or other narcotics, he counts some 270 calls to the CPCS alleging spice poisoning since the beginning of 2013—or about 10 a month.
Geller compared the “untoward reactions” of spice to meth and bath salts.
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“It’s like a bad surprise,” he said. “You don’t know which of these agents you’re getting, and you don’t know how a given individual is going to react to them.”
Documenting these untoward reactions is grim work. Researchers at the University of Dresden published a succinct case study on spice dependence in 2009. The patient, who had worked himself up to 3 grams a day of “spice gold” over the course of eight months, encountered a problem with supply and was suddenly cut off.
His unplanned abstinence was brutal. Symptoms included “profuse sweating during the day and especially in the night, as well as internal unrest, tremor, palpitation, insomnia, headache, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting,” according to the study. He felt “depressed and desperate.” He found another spice supplier, but eventually stopped showing up to his job and was checked into a hospital.
There, on the second night of this detox, he started to sweat and tremble again. “From day 4,” the paper states dryly, “the patient started to develop internal unrest, strong desire for ‘spice,’ nightmares, profuse sweating, nausea, tremor, and headaches.” His mental state continued to deteriorate; the case study recorded that “the patient reported that ‘he had stood beside himself.’”
The University of Florida published a study in 2013 linking spice to strokes in “otherwise healthy adults.” Use has been associated, in some tragic cases, with heart attacks and sudden, unexpected seizures. Acute psychosis comes up often in the literature.
Even in the face of these anecdotes, we still don’t really understand what synthetic cannabinoids do. There have never been clinical trials in humans. Understanding spice through cases of people calling into poison control or showing up in emergency rooms is tricky; there are often multiple intoxicants involved, so spice can’t always be pointed to as the problem in question, plus it’s still very difficult to test for.
As the Journal of Psychopharmacology points out, “a number of fatal cases after using [SCAs] have been described, causality was never proven.”
The researchers at the University of Dresden pointed out: “There is still no reliable scientific information on the actions of these substances in man.”
Not for human consumption
The government has been going after spice, at various levels, for a long time. Congress passed the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act in 1986; it treated analogues such as the ones found in spice as controlled substances. However, the act was worded with an unfortunate loophole that could be bypassed by printing “not for human consumption” on the label.
In 2011, five popular synthetic cannabanoids were temporarily added to Schedule I by the DEA. In 2012, the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act was passed, scheduling a slew of designer drugs and refining legal tools to prosecute their users. In 2013, the DEA temporarily scheduled five more varieties.
California, in turn, criminalized the sale and distribution of synthetic cannabinoid derivatives in 2011 by amending the Health and Safety Code. Proving that a product is a synthetic cannabinoid, however, takes a trained chemist and plenty of lab work on the part of the government, both of which are slow and expensive.
Bans like those in Atascadero and Guadalupe are intended to plug a hole left by that amendment to the Health and Safety Code. Chiefly, local bans can criminalize possession of synthetic cannabinoids, which neither the state nor the federal government have thus far bothered to do.
“It kind of fell between the cracks of being a controlled substance and something that’s lawful to possess,” Guadalupe PD Chief Hoving said. “A lot of things are lawful to possess, but when you ingest it and use it as a recreational drugs, you’re having these effects. The law cannot stay on top of variations in these drugs.”
Advocates for drug policy reform aren’t convinced that these laws are going to keep people safe from designer drugs. Ellen Komp, the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of California Laws, said spice use is a direct consequence of what she understands to be an unjust prohibition regime.
“The prohibition on marijuana has driven people toward synthetic drugs like spice,” she said. “As we move toward a legalized and regulated system for all, cannabis is increasingly tested in laboratories both for safety and potency, and labeled with the types of amounts of its various constituents.”
Spice, by contrast, is unregulated and unpredictably potent.
Amanda Reiman, the manager of marijuana law and policy for the Drug Policy Alliance, struck a similar tone.
“Really, the solution would be to legalize the natural form,” she said. “In terms of the synthetic cannabinoids—they’re not a safe product, but we don’t believe that prohibiting a product is the answer.”
Hoving is not convinced by these arguments. “I think that’s an unfounded claim,” he said, pointing out that medical marijuana licenses are relatively easy to get in California. He thinks spice-users could get their hands on legal weed if they needed to.
Supply isn’t really the question, pointed out Kirk Estes, an AOD (alcohol and other drug) counselor at Coast Valley Substance Abuse Treatment Center in Lompoc.
“It’s nothing for a meth addict to drive to Ventura and Santa Barbara to pick up meth,” he said. “People will travel to get their drug of choice.”
At Coast Valley, he said, several clients use spice. Many are young, in their early 20s, and many were trying to beat drug tests. Some are older: one, a 40-year-old construction contractor, was spending some $1,200 a month on spice. Much like the German man addicted to “spice gold,” the contractor went into brutal withdrawals while he was in the treatment center.
“It was pretty bad,” Estes said.
What needs to be known about spice, Estes said, is that it’s dangerous—strange and unpredictable and wholly unlike the plant it was originally modeled after.
“It’s marketed as a safer alternative to marijuana,” he said. “That’s simply not true.”
In fact, Holl-lee Lawrence, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the youth and family treatment coordinator with SLO County Drug & Alcohol Services, explained that the word has been spreading among the juveniles she works with. Namely, people looking at spice as a means of passing drug tests are learning that the drug isn’t as test proof as they may have thought. And when local officials are able to test for the drug, she said all that’s really left is a drug that isn’t particularly appealing.
“At least from the stories and the description I get told, it’s not a pleasant experience—unless you’re looking to hallucinate or possibly throw up,” she said. “It has a negative reputation, at least in the North County, at least among my kids, to where nobody wants to brag about, ‘I got so messed up on spice; I got super high, and then I saw spiders on the wall.’”
Sean McNulty is a staff writer for New Times’ sister paper, the Sun. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. New Times Senior Staff Writer Colin Rigley contributed to this article.