What Is Spice? The Ultimate Guide

(We recently featured an article entitled “Spice: What Is It, And Can It Be Tested?” on our blog. One of our readers pointed out something we kind of overlooked – what is spice?? So we endeavored to answer that question below by providing what we hope will become the ultimate guide to Spice.)

What is Spice?

What is spice? Everybody is trying to figure this out as awareness of this new substance spreads into pop culture, high schools, and even gas stations near you.

Spice is slang for synthetic cannabis. It was once an actual brand but has become shorthand for a wide variety of similar products. It’s a mixture of herbs that have had synthetic cannabinoids sprayed on them. One of these cannabinoids is called JWH-018 and was invented in a lab to help with pain. The point of experimenting with cannabinoids was to eliminate the effects of cannabinoids that create a “high” while maintaining the pain relief effects. With JWH-018, this did not happen – actually JWH-018 is very potent, more potent than many forms of marijuana.

One of the reasons Spice has taken off in popularity is that JWH-018 can be made easily by combining a few commercial products. Its first non-lab use was in Asia, where it became an aid for plant growth. Much of the Spice you see in the United States still comes from manufacturers in Asia. Its purpose in the United States is quite different though – it is smoked by folks for a high that is still legal federally and in most states.

Spice is marketed in the U.S. as “incense.” This is to prevent it from having to adhere to regulations were it labeled a medicine or “smokable product.” It usually comes in a little pouch. The ingredients listed on the pouches do not always reflect what’s actually in the pouch.

Typically Spice is smoked as marijuana would be. It has many, many names and brands, among them: Algerian Blend, Genie, k2, Smoke, Chill X, Sense, Yucatan Fire, Spice Diamond, Spice Silver, Spice Gold.

Where can it be purchased?

Spice is purchased at head shops, gas stations, etc., as it is legal in most states.  There’s also a thriving online industry for Spice and other synthetic cannabis products.

What does it do?

Spice that contains JWH-018 acts in the brain the same way that marijuana does. It binds to the CB1 and CB2 receptors in the brain. It blocks the action of these two cannabinoid receptors. They are most common in the parts of the brain that have the most to do with memory, like the hippocampus.

How does it work?

Spice that contains JWH-018 acts in the brain the same way that marijuana does. It binds to the CB1 and CB2 receptors in the brain. It blocks the action of these two cannabinoid receptors. They are most common in the parts of the brain that have the most to do with memory, like the hippocampus.

Is it legal?

Is it largely legal in the United States, but it is illegal in many European countries.

Where is it illegal?

(All of this information is as of October 27, 2010; there may be other cities, localities, countries and states that have banned synthetic cannabis which have escaped our attention)

Countries where it is illegal: Austria, Germany, France, Ireland, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, Chile, South Korea, Japan.

States in the US where it is illegal: Kansas, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oregon, Michigan.

States in the US where it is about to be illegal: Illinois.

States where the legal status of synthetic cannabis is under discussion: New York, New Jersey, Florida, Indiana, Ohio.

What are the risks?

In most states, Spice is still legal, so you won’t get in trouble for possessing it. The major risk is that there have been no major tests done about synthetic cannabinoids’ effect on the human body. Even the inventor of JWH-018, John W. Huffman, PhD, says that because they’ve never been tested using them recreationally is like “Russian Roulette.” Although he certainly does not endorse marijuana use he goes so far as to recommend, somewhat hypothetically, smoking marijuana as preferable to smoking synthetic cannabis, since at least it has been studied. WebMD points out that they share a chemical structure with some carcinogens, and a published study shows that when JWH-018 enters the body it is metabolized into carcinogens (see Vice magazine).

Spice is not regulated either – as mentioned above, what’s on the label may not be what’s in the bag (and the reason Spice did not attract attention for so long is that in fact the synthetic cannabinoids producing the psychoactive affects were NOT on the label). Some doctors believe that Spice related cases they have seen may stem from additional contaminants in the product(s). These contaminants have led to effects that are reminiscent not of a marijuana-like drug, but a stimulant.

Indeed, the side effects are not always simply a high feeling. Vomiting, increased heart rate, hallucinations, and increased anxiety can occur. Some people have even been hospitalized. And other typical drug drawbacks can occur too – withdrawal, cravings, a hangover, and even addiction has been documented.

What are the signs that someone is using synthetic cannabis?

Unlike marijuana, synthetic cannabis does not have a signature smell. The high is relatively short (30 minutes or so) and generally shorter than a high from marijuana. So it is less likely you will catch someone “acting high” when they are using the drug. However, this may vary depending on the potency of the product consumed. The red-eyed look of someone high on marijuana can also be seen in someone high on Spice, as can the general slowness and subdued behavior. In terms “not currently high” symptoms and signs of continued use and/or dependency, symptoms will be similar to marijuana use – less interest in schoolwork or extracurricular activities, detachment, lethargy.

The most common method of using spice is smoking it in joint form. If you are a parent, it is worth noting if rolling papers and rollers suddenly appear. Other marijuana paraphernalia (such as glassware, bongs, etc.) should be looked out for as well. You might also look for eyedrops which are used to mask the bloodshot effect that both Spice and marijuana can have on the eyes.

Dr. Scalzo, who is studying cases in which use of Spice has led to emergency room visits, tells parents to be on the lookout for agitation, pale appearance, and confusion and anxiety in teens that may be the result of hallucinations. Other signs of Spice’s adverse effects include paleness and increased heartbeat and blood pressure. (For the full article on Dr. Scalzo please visit Science Daily).

What can parents do?

Many state and local communities are discussing the issue of synthetic cannabis. Some cities have endeavored to create ordinances banning its use. If you are interested in stopping the sale of synthetic cannabis, the best thing to do is probably to contact your local and state representatives and bring the issue to their attention.

Can I drug test my child?

The answer is sort of yes and no. Unfortunately at the moment no home drug test is available to test for the synthetic compounds in Spice and related products. However, labs have developed on-site technology to test for a few (if not all) of the synthetic cannabinoids in Spice. Redwood Toxicology is the first lab to do so. Here is what you need to know about their detection of synthetic cannabis in urine:

  • The metabolites detected are JWH-018 and JWH-073. Other metabolites that may be active in synthetic cannabis will not be detected by this test (for example, HU-210, a synthetic cannabinoid discovered in Spice Gold).
  • JWH-018 and JWH-073 were chosen for detection because they are at this time the most common: between the two, they are the active ingredients in 27 different Spice type mixtures.
  • JWH-018 and JWH-073 can be detected in urine (depending on how much was used) for up to 72 hours after last use.

One important thing to remember is that if you suspect your child is using Spice, testing them with a marijuana drug test is useless. Chemically, synthetic cannabis is not similar to marijuana, and it will not show up as positive for marijuana on a drug test.

List of Links:

There are a lot of great sources on Spice and Spice-like products out there. Here is a selection of resources for those interested in learning more about Spice:

Joseph Brownstein for ABC News: “K2 Giving People Another Dangerous Way to Get High”

Mary Carmichael for Newsweek: “Fake-Pot Panic”

David Kroll: “Is DEA about to act of K2 Spice synthetic marijuana products?”

David Kroll: “What’s the buzz?: Synthetic marijuana, K2, Spice, JWH-018”

Andrew Moseman for Discover Magazine: “Legal, Synthetic Marijuana Pleases Pot-Heads, Upsets State Governments”

Peter Rugg for The Pitch: “Product Review: Will K2 Synthetic Marijuana Get You High?”

Erowid.org: Spice Product Resources

European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction: “Synthetic Cannabinoids and ‘Spice’”

Have a source you’d like to add to the list, or a question you’d like us to answer?  Please send an email to the author, Robyn, at robyn at homehealthtesting.com and she’ll do the best to answer your question.  Thanks for reading what we hope will become the Ultimate Guide to Spice!

Photo by Schorle

29 comments

  1. john smith says:

    *POISON* This stuff should not be smoked. It is sending people to Emergency Rooms. *Poison*

  2. Kyle says:

    Well John Smith, it’s only sending people to the emergency room because they smoke it like weed. It’s so new that people treat is at weed. The thing is, that this stuff, you only need 5-6 hits and you’re set. Or one resin hit. If smoked like weed, you’re guna get f***** up the a** and end up puking and feeling like you’re dieing. This is not as bad as you might make it to be. Limitation is the key.
    People say, “Oh it contains acetone” well if the person that says that smokes cigarettes, then they’re a hypocrite because cigarettes have acetone in them and much more. People smoke cigs more often then this would be smoked, so It’s not even as bad as a legal substance.

  3. john h says:

    As long as you don’t smoke too much of the pure chemical you will be fine, its possible to end up with cancer or something in the long run, but we know for a fact cigarettes with give you cancer yet we still smoke them. At least jwh gets you high!! Oh yeah, the do have a test now and the drug courts are using it! Smoke with caution!

  4. Forensics says:

    I know that Norchem tests for Spice and will soon have a retail option for the home consumer. They have JWH-18, 19, 73 and 250 where Redwood is only holding on to two of the most common ones. Check their website out: http://www.norchemlab.com for more information.

  5. Mac Fizzle says:

    You guys are funny, as well as all the damned labs that stopped people under court supervision from smoking for what…2 weeks while we figured out the new chem to smoke it is a good thing that plastic can be recycled :D cause it would be a damned shame to see all those cups go to the landfill when their deemed virtually useless. I wish the court system would stop sticking their over zealous noses wherever the h*ll they do not belong.

  6. Orion says:

    Not that I support the use of any drugs. but in the bombardment of laws that are restricting and taking away our rights and freedoms, When are we going to stop “forcefully” requiring compliance to laws and regulations of the land of the free (oxymoron)

    I Value freedom, and I value Health and Education. would I compromise one over the other? not at all. I would fight Anti-freedom laws till i was blue in the face. Than grab my picket and hit the streets educating the public on why they should not use drugs, and support local business that assist folks with drug addictions. I am a man of principle and I never would sacrifice one belief over another.

  7. Orion says:

    on a further note, it cost far more to restrict than it does to educate, why not allow business to spur up within the community’s for the purpose of educating and assisting drug users, instead of filling our prisons and causing them to be a drain on society. would cost fare less and have a better result in the long run. but in order for that to happen government would have to not regulate and restrict businesses as well. Is it possible?

  8. Ken says:

    Amazing. Why are we having this conversation when the real issue is why is this product on the market? Oh yeah…marijuana is illegal, for no good reason. The failure of marijuana prohibition is perfectly illustrated in the creation of a product like Spice.

  9. Myles says:

    I agree with Ken. I smoke spice for that exact reason. That and it’s also cheaper.

  10. emeraldcityswagg206 says:

    so is it tested regularly in drug court or probation?

  11. DPUNM says:

    Orion
    you are so wrong in your thoughts, when you get a 12 year old doing it and then 4 years later ends up in jail because it was legal and then he needed more and more, then when you as a father realizes the truth is more important then an illegal drug that kills people and young kids0 then you may change your idealism

  12. DPUNM says:

    Just passed as illegal in North Carolina

  13. Jes says:

    Why just not legalize weed, i think it is time to let the people know that weed is not bad. This spice thing could have effects on people later on with the different chemicals they use.

  14. Lexi says:

    I agree with Orion COMPLETELY! This is a matter of faith, and America has none of it in its own people. I understand the children and what not, I have a kid too, but how in the world do you expect them to understand why you say no? A child will only know not to touch fire, even after you’ve told them 100 times why not to, untill they’ve burned themselves. I understand protecting your child from themself but you can’t shelter them. I understand they need a childhood but childhood only lasts so long, you have to exposed them little at a time. If not when they become adults they’ll go crazy on the stuff because they dont know any better and i might just be worse. I smoked weed for year straight when I was 17, and I learned it was not for me. I school work suffered, I was easily agitated in the morning because I really was hung over, I was mean to my family. I realized I couldn’t do it anymore and stopped. You have to have faith they you were a good parent and that your kid is a good kid. Same goes to adults, we have to stop sheltering ourselves. We all the affects of almost every drug. We know cigs can kill us, we know pot DOES harm our lungs, we know alcohol eats our liver. We still choose to do these things because life in the 21st century has given people more responsibility, more stress, and more problems for everyone since ever. We all choose our own escape and I think that Orion was right again about getting everyone together to promote exercise and hobbies to cope with stress instead of drugs and alcohol. We have to try and see if America and moderate itself for once without forced regulation. I mean, for heaven’s sake, if we can’t even trust ourselves with ourselves, who can we trust?

  15. Mike says:

    @Jes

    If they legalize weed then when stoners get high, they’ll have nothing to talk about.

  16. Jo says:

    I got to be honest. People say spice has sent many people to the hospital. But why? I agree that spice makes your heart race, but it hasn’t sent enough people to the hospital to make dysrrhythmias a positive side effect. What were the kids doing before they smoked? Did they drink a few energy drinks, or a few beers, or take perscription drugs, or did they try other illicit drugs before smoking spice? As an RN I don’t encourage anyone ingest carcinogens or inhale combustable smoke, but I think there needs to be more testing done on the product before you can say “spice is deadly!” I do believe in giving people the freedom of choice to smoke or not to smoke. I do think naturally occuring products (like marijuana) is better for you (not healthy but better) than synthetics (like spice). But people can’t say “oh spice is what sent my kid to the hospital.” It’s possible to drink coffee, then an hour later something scares you to speed you heart up even more, then you can end up in the hospital for tachycardic arrhythmias (fast heart with palpitations). So it’s not positive that spice raises the heart rate high enough to send people to the hospital. first of all, I’ve worked in the ER this year and have not once seen a person come in for smoking spice. I’m not saying that it is or isnt dangerous, I’m just saying we need more studies. And if you want people to stop smoking spice, then legalize pot. Thats a drug that has at least contributed to zero deaths! Look it up, I’m not lying. It’s all natural, safer for you than antidepressants (which can lead to heart, liver, and blood problems), antianxiety meds (which can lead to liver, respiratory, and psych problems), and pain medications (which can lead to addiction, respiratory, livers, and GI problems). So if all these perscription meds can cause all these problems, then why are they legal? oh i know, MONEY! they are regulated and controlled by the FDA! so i know how to solve this problem, legalize and control marijuana. Make laws that prohibit use before or during work, in public places, near kids or children play areas. Make money by taxing it and helping lower the debt. And educate people on marijuana dependence, psych problems that can occur with overuse (just as in alcohol abuse), and medical problems that negate the use of weed (like hear/respiratory problems, ulcers, low blood pressure, obesity), and educate on safer ways to smoke (vaporizers, small minimal amounts, signs of dependence), and support groups to addiction. Once again, I’m against unhealthy practices, but I’m for freedom of choice. Marijuana might not be beneficial for the majority, but it is viewed as a better alternative to most controlled substances out there.

  17. Jo says:

    I need to make a correction, it is not a proven fact that marijuana is safer than the perscription medications listed above (i don’t want to get sued). It is my opinion that it is safer. I made this assumption by knowing that there has been deaths from those perscription meds listed above, but zero deaths from marijuana. Also, I believe there needs to be a test availible for acute smoking (like a breathalizer) to catch people who recently smoked and then decided to drive (or work). And remember, its better for you to stay smoke/alcohol free, eat organic food or foods low in perservatives, eat high fiber/low fat/low sugar meals, and exercise daily. This can help build a healthy body and mind, which can lower your need/reliance/or dosage of drugs.

  18. Jo says:

    One more thing, I promise lol. Not that I encourage smoking spice, but if you do then take precaution (just like schools don’t encourage sex until marriage, but then they tell you how to have safe sex). Spice is unregulated. Many brands might contain different ingredients or chemicals. So if one makes you feel sick, then don’t do it again. Stick with one that doesn’t make you feel any adverse reactions. And don’t over do it people. Too much water can kill you, too much oxygen can kill you, too much of anything can kill you. So don’t go looking for that next high, or it could be your last!

  19. Andy says:

    @DPUNM
    Now for one, I do not support spice at all. I think people shouldn’t smoke it, and marijuana is way safer.
    But Orien’s got a point. Restricting every little thing is a waste of time and money. They should be teaching us and our kids about the drugs, and give us the freedom to do it anyway. When I have kids, I’ll teach them right. The fact that something is illegal are not is not going to effect anyone. A kid who’s not brought up right is going to do what he wants regardless. A kid that is raised right won’t do things they know is wrong, even if it’s legal.
    They shouldn’t allow people to work while intoxicated, but we shoud still have our rights.

  20. Big Bob says:

    The problem is not whether you are smoking pot or smoking spice. The problem is that this generation is smoking to get “High”. If your high then you are not focused on what is important in life like getting an education or a good paying job so that you can support yourself and not plan to live with mommy and daddy till your 32 years of age. When your high life will pass before your eyes until its too late to get your poop in a group.

  21. You bet ya says:

    I once interviewed a few people who had have been smoking “spice” or whatever the names are for school and this is it in a nutshell. There is white rhino, cush, popey, genie, 4 aces, chill x, k2, black momba. It’s always changing. K2 and Blackmomba and spice were the popular ones at first. I believe they started getting banned. Because They all have different potency, different tastes smells and the whole nine yards. 1 gram is any where from 4.99 – 14.99+ 5 grams $14.99 – $79.99. One person told me he got 15 grams online for only $45.00 That’s quite a bit! It is sold mainly at smoke shops hear i believe they got banned here. It is sold to anybody that is 18 years or older. It is smoked just like marijuana. Most people smoke it from a small pipe. I’ve hear some very good and some VERY bad stories about trips. When first smoked highs are more giggly and fun. Distances seem very far colors start to fade a little and of course munchies similar to marijuana. People can easily smoke it in public and get away with it. Smells like smoke. No distinct smells. They say smoking during the day is much better much up and such a better high. At night can be good trips but eventually fade to straight tiredness. One individual went to amusement park and said it was amazing.

    On the other side i’ve heard awful stories of super fast heart rate. Blacking out vomiting thinking they were going to die. Spacey like they just had a seizure or just woke up. Feeling super floaty and light. Numbness. One kid said he was watching just judy and her face was melting then followed the worst trip of his life. He thought he was going to die. He even called his friend to come check him out. Not good at all. Other times of feeling super dizzy. Tripping on sounds and lights.

    Users seem to be funny or high at appearance. Eyes red and droopy. Or like i mentioned before pale face. They can smoke all day and forget what they did the whole day when the most likely watched tv payed call of duty or sat on the internet. Complete loss of interest. Increase sexual drive. Laziness and squinty eyes.

    One person struct me most out of all of them He was a user for a little over a year. Legit guy full time job managing a retail store. Smokes about 5 – 40 bowls a day. On a tight budget living on his own family totally oblivious as well as most friends coworkers were suspicious. Hard worker great kid. Completely addicted. Hates to admit it but can’t stop. It’s again all his morals. “he tried it for fun” now 100% addicted. He has a love hate relationship. Smoke weed occasionally and drinks on occasion. Pays about 200 a month on it. He tires to stop but can’t he feels like there is a chemical that’s in it that is addicting. He’ll quit throw all of it away one night feeling down and guilty next day of stress full work a new pipe and bag. Vicious cycle. He has gained about 40 pounds fairly built normal young man. He admits to loss and gain of appetite, headaches and the scariest of all… Swollen throat and congestion. Very curious to know why that is. lynphnodes huge burning throat and hard to swallow. He’ll sometime lose feeling in his arms or legs being both bad and good. He says “its a lot like shrooms, the trip is kinda what you make it to be. YOu can have the best time of your life snowboarding or go on a motorcycle drive. But on the opposite side you can be throwing up and have a bad trip while driving (obviously not safe)” but in the end he just doesn’t really care what it does. More of a whatever happens happens kind of a deal. Smoke it to get the day by or have a good time. Toatal roller coaster ride.

    I’ve heard a ton of bad rumors also about people making it in their tub and spraying horse tranqs in there or paint thinner. Which worries me

    Just some thoughts! Share some knowledge

  22. Linda says:

    I’m a 62 yr old woman and a lightweight when it comes to booze and pot. Recently I took only 1 hit of Spice. Before I even walked out the door I could feel the effects. Two minutes, then 5 minutes later I was so high I was trying to focus, had 2 sixteen ounce beers in me. This, to many people is nothing, but I didn’t know if I was going to black out, vomit or just die right there of a stupid thing. The party was quiet and I thought 1 hit of this new synthetic pot would perk me up. Big surprise. If you’re a lightweight, stay away from the stuff. I heard the first time smoked was a bad high- hallucinations and the whole thing. Who knows. Might have been different if I hadn’t drank beer also. I’m staying away though. Life is short enough.

  23. How my blog post title to appear not the blog title during a search engine query for a specific keyword?

  24. kylie says:

    you know it’s pretty ridiculous that people are worried about this drug sending people to the ER. Have people not been taken to the ER for alcohol. People act like spice and weed are so bad but alcohol as mostly the same effects. I dont understand how people dont see that. I myself do not smoke Weed or Spice but I am a strong believer that neither one of the two should be illegal. I know alot of people that do smoke Weed and they seem way more in control than as if they were drunk off alcohol. Everyone should take a real hard look at what they are saying and look back at a time you were drunk, same effects?, or mostly the same effects? Thats what i thought. People are so hypocritical.

  25. HigH says:

    I know what it feels like to be high on marijuana. i smoke up to 4 or 5 times a day. When i finally decided to give spice a try i wasn’t sure what effects in had in store for my mind or my body. many of my friends who have tried it said it gave them an intense high. It made their heart beat rapidly, gave them a slight trip, and made things seem like they werent as real…kinda like a spiritual feeling. The high only lasted about 25 to 30 minutes. When i finally decided to give it a try i packed a bowl in between me and one other person. i felt the affects in close to 45 seconds after my first hit…i couldn’t believe the intense and powerful high it gave you…i didnt trip and my heart didnt race…but i was pretty messed up. i had racing thoughts about different things and i had fantasies about different things. not sexual, but like i would imagine that i was the richest man in the world and i could do anything i wanted…i would go deep into thought and not say a word….after the high was over all i wanted to do was sleep. i hated everyone and it pretty much made me feel like the scum on the bottom of my shoe. I dont feel like spice has any life threatening characteristics but if you dont have any tolerance to marijuana or knowing what an intense high feels like on any drug i would suggest that you try spice first…i hope they make it ILLEGAL in all states and legalize marijuana. spice is a direct cause of marijuana being illegal…everyone smokes pot its just illegal so thats why people think its so bad…get high on gods green earth…not this shit that comes from the lab.

  26. [...] So what in the heck is spice exactly, and who can buy it? According to Home Health Testing’s Ultimate Guide, which can be read here: [...]

  27. indigoblue says:

    Another RN here. We have been seeing an alarming number of patient admissions to our psychiatric hospital after users smoked spice in the last two years or so here in Florida. I never saw this prior to that time period. These people are frequently brought in by police or EMT’s because of their psychotic behavior which includes combativeness, stripping, hallucinating, inablity to focus. They become totally out of touch with reality, and are at great risk for injuries such as falls or walking into traffic. It also puts others in their path at risk as well. Habitual users appear withdrawn and distracted. I cannot imagine how anyone who has seen some of the cumulative effects of Spice would not be concerned about it. It is not a harmless substance. It is truly frightening to witness just how messed up some of these people are. Everytime we get another admission like this, it is anyone’s guess as to whether or not they are going to come out of that psychotic state with an intact mind. This is very risky behavior.

  28. Estela says:

    my son smokes Spice. everday. 2-3 times a day. how can i make him stop? i love him and i don’t want him to die.