The 'Spice' Problem—Why Is It So Difficult to Crack Down on Synthetic Marijuana?

By May Wilkerson 05/10/16

Synthetic marijuana is ever-changing and often can not be drug tested, making the struggle to contain the substance challenging for authorities.

The 'Spice' Problem—Why Is It So Difficult to Crack Down on Synthetic Marijuana?

You've probably heard of synthetic pot, aka Spice or K2, the drug that's made headlines for landing people in the ER, exhibiting a whole range of bizarre behavior. Last year, there were nearly 8,000 synthetic marijuana poisonings across the U.S. But what is it, exactly, and why is it such a mystery? Law enforcement and legislators can't seem to get a grasp on it, failing to keep up with the "rogue chemists" that churn out new drugs. 

In fact, synthetic marijuana has little to do with actual pot, other than the fact that they act on the same receptors in the brain, albeit in different ways. But the synthetic version is made in a lab, and unlike marijuana, is known to have some pretty severe, unpredictable side effects. These include hallucinations, paranoia, and aggressive behavior, as well as potentially life-threatening symptoms like stroke, kidney failure and irregular heartbeat. Though marijuana that grows out of the ground is not without risk, it's clearly much less dangerous by comparison.

The fake stuff is much harder to detect in drug tests, because its chemical makeup is constantly being tweaked by underground chemists to evade the law. This tactic seems to be working. Everyone from the homeless to soldiers, parolees and athletes use the drug, according to Slatepeople who are subjected to mandatory drug testing. But because the drug-making process is unregulated and the effects are unpredictable, synthetic marijuana is particularly dangerous, says Dr. Robert Galli, a professor of emergency medicine and toxicology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC). “The experimentation on this is with the American public,” Galli told the Guardian. “It’s not like these are given to animals to see how they respond. These are given to human animals, and they get it on the street.”

As legislators and law enforcement play catch-up with black market chemists, the chemicals found in Spice appear to be getting more toxic, according to UMMC toxicologists. Last year, they detected far more potent chemical mutations in Spice batches that led to a slew of hospitalizations.

Because the chemical composition of synthetic drugs like Spice is constantly changing, legal crackdowns have proved difficult. Many suspect that synthetic drugs, which also include the synthetic opiate W-18 and flakka, are being shipped over from producers in China. It's an unprecedented situation. However, just as unprecedented was the April report that flakka use was down throughout the country. No one saw this coming for the drug craze, which also yielded reports of erratic behavior and hospitalizations.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.