There's been a lot of press coverage of a scary and dangerous drug the media refers to as synthetic-marijuana. It's often sold as herbal incense and is most commonly known as Spice. Although the media likes to compare Spice to marijuana, they have very little in common. We at Colorado NORML object to this comparison.

Marijuana, also known as cannabis, is a plant found in nature. Humans have used marijuana for thousands of years with no know deaths or injuries. Today we know that marijuana is an extraordinary medicine effective on conditions ranging from cancer to migraines, seizures to chronic pain. A form of the marijuana plant, hemp, is a great industrial material used in paper, cloth, biofuels, food products and numerous other applications. Spice has none of those positive qualities.

Spice does not occur in nature, but was created in a lab. Although some Spice contains synthetically produced cannabinoids (the active chemicals unique to cannabis), these products also contain unknown chemicals. The user smokes these chemicals and may get high, but risks injury1 or even death.2 Neither the chemicals nor the synthetic cannabinoids have been tested for safety.

Many people choose to use synthetic marijuana instead of the real thing because it's not as likely to show up in drug tests. Since manufacturers use unique formulas of chemical compounds, testing becomes difficult.3 However, drug testing is getting more sophisticated, and some tests can detect Spice metabolites in urine. But, this raises another issue: The threat of a positive marijuana test, a legal activity, has the unwanted result of encouraging the use of a dangerous drug because it is not as likely to show up on a drug test. With that in mind, Colorado should encourage drug testing policies that protect legal marijuana users.

So what is Spice anyway?

Back in 2000 when it first came out, Spice manufacturers marketed this dangerous product as a legal and natural herbal alternative to marijuana.4 In 2008, laboratory analysis showed that the chemicals used were similar to the active chemicals in marijuana called cannabinoids. In 2010, the DEA banned the chemicals used to make Spice, and today Spice is illegal in Colorado, across the U.S. and throughout most of Europe.

Spice is not and has never been a natural substance. Sold under names like K2 and Black Mamba, all Spice products contain chemicals created in a lab, not in nature, some of which are actually toxic. We don't really know what these chemicals do or how dangerous they may be because they are not tested or regulated.

Often, what's inside doesn't match the list of ingredients on the package, and each packet of Spice may contain a completely different formulation, even though the labels are the same. Some Spice manufacturers use the potentially psychoactive herbs ‘Indian warrior’ (Pedicularis densiflora) or ‘Lion’s tail’ (Leonotis leonurus) that may also contain heavy metal residues harmful to your health.5

What are synthetic cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are the group of chemicals naturally occurring in marijuana (cannabis). In the 1960s, university researchers along with the pharmaceutical company Pfizer studied THC, the most well-known cannabinoid in marijuana. They wanted to come up with synthetic compounds that would do the wonderful work of marijuana without the psychoactive effects. They failed. What these scientists did do, however, is develop 3 chemical series generally referred to as “synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists.” These chemicals are often found in Spice along with “fatty acid amides” which is a common contaminant from plastics. The scientists could not separate out the psychoactive effects, and the pharmacology of synthetic cannabinoids has not been investigated.

How does Spice compare to marijuana?

Unlike the retail marijuana that a person 21 or older can legally purchase in Colorado starting January 1, 2014, Spice is an unregulated, untested, chemical created in an illegal lab with harmful effects on the brain and body. Unlike marijuana, Spice has been found to cause convulsions,6 increased agitation and vomiting,7 heart attacks,8 psychosis,9 and addiction.10

The only thing that Spice and marijuana have in common is that they can both be smoked. Marijuana has none of the harmful effects of Spice, and there has never been a death attributed to marijuana in recorded history. Marijuana has known medical benefits and has helped thousands of people.

Calling Spice synthetic marijuana makes Spice seem safe, natural and legal, none of which is true. Referring to Spice as synthetic-marijuana is more than misleading. It's dangerous.

Spice is not marijuana, synthetic or otherwise. Stop calling it that!


1. American Association of Poison Control Centers reports over 2400 poisoning cases from exposure to Spice




5. “Understanding the ‘Spice’ Phenomenon,” European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), 2009 Cais do Sodre’, Page 8, 1249-289 Lisbon, Portugal

6. citing Schneir, AB; Baumbacher, T (2011 December 13). "Convulsions Associated with the Use of a Synthetic Cannabinoid Product.". Journal of Medical Toxicology 8 (1): 62–4.

7. citing Jeanna Bryner (March 3, 2010). "Fake Weed, Real Drug: K2 Causing hallucinations in Teens". LiveScience. Retrieved April 21, 2010.

8. citing Mir, A; Obafemi, A, Young, A, Kane, C (2011 Dec). "Myocardial infarction associated with use of the synthetic cannabinoid k2.". Pediatrics 128 (6): e1622–7.

9. citing Müller, H.; Sperling, W.; Köhrmann, M.; Huttner, H.; Kornhuber, J.; Maler, J. (2010). "The synthetic cannabinoid Spice as a trigger for an acute exacerbation of cannabis induced recurrent psychotic episodes". Schizophrenia research 118 (1–3): 309–310.

10. citing Zimmermann, U., et al. (2009). "Withdrawal phenomena and dependence syndrome after the consumption of "spice gold"". Deutsches Arzteblatt international 106 (27): 464–467.

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