The emergence of “Spice” has prompted a rise in emergency room visits across the country, and even death in some cases.
Spice is the common name for synthetic marijuana. Natural marijuana gains its mind-altering effects from a chemical known as THC. Synthetic marijuana, on the other hand, is coated with synthetic cannabinoids – a family of more than 700 research chemicals.
New figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show synthetic marijuana killed 15 people in the first half of 2015 – three times as many as the same period in 2014.
From Jan. 1, 2015, through April 22, 2015, poison centers have received 1,900 exposure calls from people seeking help for adverse reactions to these drugs; this is almost four times the rate of calls received in 2014, according to The American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC).
The plant material is usually Damiana leaf, which is not harmful by itself. Manufacturers spray the leaves with chemicals that are designed to mimic the effects of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
However, the product is marketed as potpourri, which is how many retailers such as gas stations and liquor stores are allowed to sell it.
Because the package explicitly states “Not For Human Consumption,” is sold for $30 a gram, and comes with an age requirement of 18 years or older, it certainly raises eyebrows.
Many convenience stores are allowed to sell it because manufacturers will change the chemicals to get around existing codes and laws for banned substances, according to Sgt. Vic McPhie with the Coweta County Sheriff’s Office.
"If Georgia bans a specific chemical in an effort to ban the drug, the next batch will have a new chemical in place of the offending one,” he said. “Because of the cat-and-mouse game between lawmakers and manufacturers, no batch is ever the same.”
The chemical formula of these substances changes from one week to the next in order to avoid regulations banning specific compound formulations. As a result, the same brand purchased at different times may produce vastly different effects.
Only lab tests can determine if the substance has chemical compounds that are illegal under Georgia law.
The manufacturing of Spice is unregulated. Leaves from the Damiana plant are spread across a table and sprayed with chemicals. Some areas may get a higher concentration of chemicals than others.
Even from the same batch, no two doses are ever the same and are often to blame when users go into rages and experience cardiac arrest.
Some of the common side effects of the drug include anxiety, racing heartbeat and blood pressure, nausea and vomiting, muscle spasms, hallucinations, psychotic episodes and suicidal thoughts.
“Dealing with users is very difficult because they’re very unpredictable,” McPhie said. “We’re are often dealing with combative, non-responsive users who can’t relay how much they’ve smoked or even what they’ve taken. They’re on a completely different planet.”
McPhie rattled off the names of chemicals such as JWH-018, tetrahydrocannabinol, HU-210, mephedrone, and methylenedioxypyrovalerone. He even said there are "how-to” guides to creating Spice online.
“The drugs aren’t made in labs,” McPhie said. “They’re concocted in people’s basements and garages.”
For McPhie, one of the most alarming aspects of Spice is its intended target audience – middle and high school students. Brand names like Juicy Fruit, Scooby Snax, Crazy Clown, K2, and Turn Up adorn the vivid, colorful packaging.
“Older people can purchase real marijuana,” McPhie said. “You can look at this stuff and see it’s clearly targeting younger people."
In his discussion with Lee Middle School students, McPhie and Deputy EJ Kee showed a video of an individual in the middle of a psychotic episode while under the influence of Spice. Initially, students laugh at the man’s delirium as he imagines people are coming for him.
“But then I ask them what it would be like if that person showed up at your front door in the middle of the night,” McPhie said. “They get serious pretty quickly and understand that these are real people out there in the world who are closer than they think."