This ‘Spice’ is Not Nice—It’s Dangerous

Health officials warn of synthetic drugs’ potentially deadly consequences

You may have heard the term “synthetic marijuana.” Contrary to its name, it is not marijuana at all, but a product made of synthetic drugs that affect the brain in a similar way as the active ingredient in cannabis. Also called synthetic cannabinoids, “spice” also goes by the names K2, AK-47, Mr. Happy, Scooby Snax, Kush, Kronic, and others, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Synthetic cannabinoids are manufactured chemicals that are sprayed onto plant material and smoked. They can also be mixed into liquid and vaped in electronic nicotine delivery devices or added to herbal tea or food. Although synthetic cannabinoids work on the same brain receptors as cannabis, they affect your brain more powerfully, and not in a good way.

What’s the danger? 

Synthetic drugs like spice are especially dangerous because they are often marketed as something else like potpourri or incense, so users might believe they are legal and relatively safe, when in fact they can cause serious illness or death, even though they often carry warning messages such as “not for human consumption.”

Also alarming to officials is the packaging, which often features bright colors and cartoonish characters that appeal to kids. They can be purchased online or, in some states, at your local liquor, tobacco, aromatherapy, or convenience store.

Nausea, anxiety, paranoia, brain swelling, seizures, hallucinations, aggression, heart palpitations, and chest pains are possible effects of using these products. And that’s just a partial list—for a more extensive one, visit the CDC. If that doesn’t scare you, the Illinois Department of Public Health issued a warning in March 2018 about synthetic cannabinoids after six people who used them suffered severe bleeding. In August 2018, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health issued a warning against the use of spice, deeming it the likely cause of dozens of recent overdose reports in the downtown Los Angeles area that resulted in the hospitalization of 38 people. Synthetic cannabinoid products may also be contaminated with other drugs or toxic chemicals with their own set of side effects, adding to the risk.

Is it legal?

In California, it’s illegal to possess, sell, dispense, distribute, or use any synthetic cannabinoid compound or any synthetic cannabinoid derivative. The federal government has also banned many specific synthetic cannabinoids, and many state and local governments have passed their own laws targeting other synthetic cannabinoids or categories of ingredients. But makers of synthetic cannabinoids often circumvent these laws by creating new products with different ingredients or by labeling them as nonedible.

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) issued its own advice on synthetic cannabinoids as part of its “Let’s Talk Cannabis” public education program. If someone you know has used synthetic cannabinoids and needs help, take the following steps:

  • Call 911 immediately if the person stops breathing, collapses, or has a seizure. These symptoms can be life-threatening and require immediate medical attention.
  • Call poison control at (800) 222-1222.

What else is being done? 

The CDC team tracks synthetic cannabinoid outbreaks to help keep the public informed and safe, and also monitors poison center data for clusters of calls related to synthetic cannabinoid use across the country.

In addition, education is key. To learn more about synthetic cannabinoids, visit CDPH offers critical information for parents and mentors, the “Safe and Responsible Use of Cannabis” fact sheet, and much more.




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