The new high: Spice

Legal and Undetected
2010-08-15T00:30:00Z 2010-12-31T00:40:43Z The new high: SpiceHeidi Toth - Daily Herald Daily Herald
August 15, 2010 12:30 am  • 

Smoking marijuana may not destroy your life like a heroin addiction or damage your body like cocaine.

It does, however, destroy trust and damage relationships; no parent wants to be lied to, to lay awake at night wondering what's going on with their children or to explain to a 5-year-old girl why her brother isn't around much anymore and doesn't seem to like his family very much.

Now, a new substance that mimics the effects of marijuana is sold legally as an incense. It could be causing the same worries - except most parents have no idea that the marijuana substitute even exists. They don't know what signs to watch for. They don't recognize the smell. It's sold by legitimate businesses and does not show up in drug tests.

This drug, known generically as spice, sort of looks like and sort of acts like pot. But in some ways, it is drastically different, and no one knows exactly what to look for or what to do now that it's here. Because it's so new, there are more questions than answers on the long-term effects of its usage and what regulation, if any, is needed; part of the ongoing debate at the county and state levels is if anything should be done.

For some, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Law enforcement officials want to get the word out that teenagers are using spice and get regulation of some kind in place to curtail its use.

"Anything to curb the use of this stuff," said Sgt. Wayne Keith, who runs a canyon patrol for the Utah County Sheriff's Office. "I think a lot of parents out there and the public have no idea what's going on."

He said spice is showing up more and more at parties in place of marijuana. He wants people to be aware that this drug use is happening, that it's happening in Utah County and that almost anyone could walk into a smoke shop or convenience store and buy the product, which is a drug no matter how it's marketed, he said.

"The biggest reason for me is I see all the young kids out getting - I don't know what other word to use except stoned - on this stuff," Keith.

The same goes for the parents of one south Utah County young adult who have watched almost helplessly as their talented 20-year-old son who says he wants to be a doctor sleeps his life away except for when he's smoking spice two or three times a day since sometime after Thanksgiving, when he came home early from his LDS mission.

"(He) felt like it was OK for him to do that because it's not illegal," his father said. "It needs to be illegal. Why would you not make it illegal when it's the same as marijuana?"


Not intended for human consumption - so what is it

intended for?

A clerk at a smoke shop answers questions about spice easily and gestures toward the large selection of the incense, which displays the different jar sizes, the flavors and the brands that don't contain acetone, an industrial solvent used to clean labs and remove nail polish. They don't sell the product to anyone younger than 19 years old, he says, and points out that each bottle is clearly labeled "not for human consumption."

The clerk pauses, leaving the unspoken reality lingering in the air with the pungent aroma of a dozen different types of tobacco - it's not like that label has stopped anybody.


"I tried it," he says.

The clerk, A.N., asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the subject. He said he'd smoked the herbal incense twice; the first time was an experiment, the second time because he remembered what the first time felt like.

"I was just trying to freaking get away from the stress, because I'd had a long day, you know?" A.N. said.

Because spice is ostensibly sold as incense, it goes unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration, much like candles or Glade Plug-Ins.

But no one is pouring oil from a Plug-In into a bong and lighting up to get high. Likewise, almost no one is buying or has ever bought spice because it smells good. A.N., who works at a smoke shop in northern Utah County, said when customers come in and ask him for the good stuff, they're not asking for the best aroma. They're asking for the best high.

"We guide them to what is strong stuff," he said.

Customers ask what burns the best and the quickest, what's smooth or harsh, what kind of effects the different brands have. They ask about the legality of smoking spice. But A.N. doesn't remember a single customer who has asked about health issues related to ingesting a product that was never designed or tested for ingestion.

"They already know what it is," he said. "They don't even ask those questions. They just come get it. ... They just like to get high."

Dr. Micah Smith, an emergency room doctor at Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem, says he has no doubt that every vendor of this product knows customers will be smoking it. They use the incense label just to get around FDA regulations, he said.

"The folks that were selling it were knowingly selling it as an abused product," Smith said. "That's the bothersome part."

A.N. knows what customers do with the spice when they leave the store; they are, after all, selling products that are meant to be smoked. Other store managers disagree. A manager at The Hookah Garden in American Fork, who declined to give his name, said they do not sell spice for smoking purposes, and if clerks suspect it is being used as a drug, they are instructed to not sell it to that customer.

Brandon Bigler, the general manager at Stogies Smoke Shop in Provo, said customers ask general questions about smoking spice; he and the staff respond that they don't know how people use the product. He does, however, have suspicions about how regular spice buyers use their purchases.

"I do, but I don't ever really try to entertain those suspicions," he said. "I just sell it. People do with it what they want when they're out of the store."

Out of almost a dozen convenience stores the Herald asked, only a couple sold spice, although almost all of the clerks knew what it was.

Deputy Jay Lessley, a drug recognition expert for the sheriff's office, said the product's actual use is obvious; store owners choose to downplay their liability by touting that spice is not for human consumption. People wouldn't spend $30 on a product that makes their houses smell like burnt grass, he said.

"I just don't know how they couldn't suspect something's up," Lessley said.



The biggest problem with spice is the uncertainty factor. Without studies, no one can accurately predict the body's response over a long time.

In the short term, spice interacts with the same cannabinoid receptors in the brain that marijuana does, Lessley said. He has been told that the brain is actually about five times more receptive to the synthetic cannabinoids than to THC in marijuana. These chemicals are more aggressive in how they work with the brain, he said.


This results in a high similar to marijuana, although some have reported it to be more intense and almost all have reported that it doesn't last as long.

"It looks just like, from what I've seen, somebody under the influence of marijuana," Lessley.

Typically, users display similar physiological reactions from spice impairment as with marijuana impairment: loss of cognition, slow response time, inability to pay attention, dilated pupils, reddened tissues around the eyes and elevated pulse and blood pressure.

But in just enough cases to be worrisome, the high isn't anything like marijuana or anything like health professionals expect.

Dr. Smith has treated two patients in the last four months who told him they'd smoked spice. Both were men in their 20s. One was sedated and confused. The other was "crawling out of his skin and crazy;" he was agitated, confused, in need of sedation - not hallucinating but "definitely in a different plane than the rest of us," Smith said.

He'd never heard of it before the first man came into the emergency room, he said. Other people may be using it and not ‘fessing up at the ER.

Users reported a different high than marijuana, although it had some similarities.

A.N., who's smoked spice twice but never marijuana, said some brands gave a "brain high" - he couldn't concentrate on conversations or movies or focus on anything.

"It gets you high in a way that makes you laugh," he said. "You don't even remember what you're saying."

He laughed about everything, almost to the point that he felt like his heart was going to stop beating from all the laughing, he said.

The other time he had a "body high" - numbness, a feeling of disconnectedness from the body. A.N. said his body went numb starting at the feet and moving up. Holli Butler, a 19-year-old Payson woman, described it as a calming of all the nerves and muscles minus the floating feeling or mental dumbness of marijuana.

The Utah Poison Control Center has had 21 calls about spice or synthetic marijuana since November. Marty Malheiro said the side effects reported to the center included slurred speech, agitation, paranoia, chest pain, vomiting, tachycardia, coma and seizures. Many of those are similar to marijuana; a few are the opposite of what marijuana should do.

Dr. Greg Hanson, director of the Utah Addiction Center, said THC actually has an antinausea effect and is used medicinally for that reason. Spice users also have reported upset stomach and diarrhea, which is not at all like marijuana; this suggests to him there is more in those little bottles than is listed. Marijuana also often results in paranoia among users. Paranoia wasn't listed as a possible effect of spice, but the drug sometimes had other mental effects that made people act out, like the second man Smith treated in his hospital.

One such incident of this kind of response was in 18-year-old David Rozga of Indianola, Iowa. He killed himself on June 6, just a little while after getting high on spice. According to the police report, he and a couple of friends smoked K2, and Rozga then "freaked out" and told his friends he was going to hell or was in hell. Then he told his friends he was going to go home and rest. He went home and shot himself. Two of his friends told police they didn't know why Rozga would kill himself; another friend's mother said he was depressed and had talked about suicide before.

The police had not received results from the medical examiner's office to determine how much of the substance was in Rozga's body when he died.


A "safe" alternative?

Spice does not show up in drug tests, and there likely won't be any tests for it soon because increasing the number of drugs screened for significantly increases the cost of a test and won't be affordable for companies, said Rick Visser, a counselor for the Alcohol and Chemical Treatment Center at Ogden Regional Medical Center.

This also means spice is legally acceptable for drug court participants, who typically are told to stay away from all drugs, including alcohol. However, since there is no test and no law, it's a non-issue. Visser said the drug courts generally are waiting for the legal system to catch up. Judge James Taylor, who oversees drug court for the 4th District Court in Utah County, said nothing has come up with any screenings and spice use has no impact on the court.


Butler and Terrin Memmott, also 19 and of Payson, started using spice as a substitute for pot. They both got misdemeanor charges for possession of marijuana earlier this year, and when Butler learned about spice in the smoke shop where she buys cigarettes, they tried it.

"We've been smoking spice since then," she said. "We used the spice to get off the marijuana."

It's still a mood-altering drug that may make users act unpredictably and does who-knows-what in the long term. Keith said that, like any drug, spice is not safe, which is what's driving the county's push to learn more about it and then determine what to do with it.

Health officials don't see much of a risk of addiction with spice; similarly, there is little chance of getting addicted to marijuana. A.N., who has some customers in the store almost daily to get spice, said addiction could be a factor in people's use, but he didn't think that motivated his customers.

"It's a habit," he said. "People don't want to drop it."

He said spice has two main draws: it's legal and it's available. People don't need to worry about getting caught using it or sneaking around trying to buy it.

As much as it pains many of them to say it, most health professionals recognize that people who want to get high will find ways to get high, Smith, the ER doctor, said.

This is similar in one sense to inhalant abusers - people who "huff" paint or other chemicals to get high. These products are legal, although most states have laws requiring purchasers to be at least 18 years old. Huffing them also is highly dangerous; according to the U.S. Department of Justice, potential effects include dizziness, delusions, impaired judgment, muscle weakness, lack of coordination, hand tremors, insomnia, nausea and vomiting and seizures. Chronic use can damage the heart, liver, kidneys, lungs and the brain.


The Creation of Spice

The inventor


John W. Huffman is a professor of organic chemistry at Clemson University in South Carolina. He has been teaching at Clemson since 1960, three years after finishing his doctoral degree at Harvard. His research has focused on the effects of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, and the creation of synthetic compounds that are similar to THC.

He has two purposes in this research: potential development of new pharmaceutical products and exploring the geometry of the two receptors in the brain that respond to marijuana. The marijuana metabolites that come from his lab are used in drug testing, while the THC analogues like JWH-018 are part of research into the treatment of nausea and glaucoma as well as appetite stimulants, according to Clemson University.

The e-mail he sent to the Daily Herald was a generic e-mail sent out to all media requests; Huffman has been besieged with questions about JWH-018 ever since spice hit the market and is no longer responding to individual requests.

"I emphasize that this compound was not designed to be a super-THC," Huffman wrote in an e-mail. "It should absolutely NOT be used as a recreational drug."


What is JWH-018?

An undergraduate student in Clemson University chemist John W. Huffman's lab created JWH-018 in 1995 in connection with research looking into the relationship between chemical structure and biological activity for a specific class of cannabinoids, according to an e-mail from Huffman. The compound, and about 150 others created for the same purpose, has been discussed in several scientific papers since then.

The effects of JWH-018 have been studied in mice, but there are no valid studies regarding its effects on people or its toxicity.

"I emphasize that this compound was not designed to be a super-THC," he wrote. "It is simply one of many compounds synthesized by my group and others for the purpose of investigating the relationship between chemical structure and biological activity. It should absolutely NOT be used as a recreational drug."

Deputy Jay Lessley, a drug recognition expert for the Utah County Sheriff's Office, said most likely someone discovered articles in scientific journals about JWH-018 and its probable effects on the brain, then duplicated the recipe and started spreading the word about the new marijuana substitute. He said he thought this use originated in Europe, and he has seen nothing to indicate it was ever intended for anything other than what it is being used for.

No one knows what kind of effects long-term use of the drug could have on the brain or body. In one article, Huffman likens ingesting the chemical compound to Russian roulette.


THC vs. JWH-018

Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the active ingredient in marijuana. Drug tests are designed to find THC. Effects of its use include distorted perceptions, poor coordination and difficulty in problem solving and memory, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Using marijuana for medical purposes is legal in 14 states and Washington, D.C., although not in Utah; recreational use is not legal anywhere in the country.

JWH-018 was created to act like THC so scientists could test its effects on lab animals. When sprayed onto the herbal mixture this becomes known as synthetic or designer marijuana. Current drug tests are not testing for this substance and thus will not pick up its presence in the body. The effects range from marijuana-like symptoms to frenetic craziness.


Medical Marijuana

photoPeople have smoked marijuana for medicinal purposes for years. In fact, it used to be legal and prescribed until the 1940s, according to a 2008 position paper from the American College of Physicians that advocated increased research into the use of medical marijuana and the end of federal drug enforcement against doctors and patients who are using medical marijuana in accordance with state law.

The paper said there have been a number of clinical reports that suggest that marijuana can have medical benefits, even outside the well-known pain relief and appetite stimulant purposes, including the treatment of glaucoma, neurological disorders and nausea associated with cancer and chronic illnesses. The obstacles to further research include a limited availability of research-quality marijuana, a complicated federal approval process and the legalization debate.

The paper cited a 1997 Institute of Medicine conclusion that marijuana and its cannabinoids could have therapeutic properties and recommended that researchers should focus on developing rapid-onset, reliable medications with a safe delivery system. The last is especially significant because adverse effects from smoking marijuana include increased heart rate and decreased blood pressure and long-term effects from smoking marijuana are similar to those of smoking cigarettes. The psychoactive effects of impairment - including short-term memory loss, decreased ability to pay attention, lessened hand-eye coordination and slow reaction times - come from smoking but come even more quickly and strongly after taking THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, orally.

Utah's Legislature has never seriously considered the legalization of medical marijuana.


The debate: To regulate or ban?


The same as any other mood- or mind-altering drug. It is not being used in the manner it is sold for and presents a danger, especially when a person in driving.

"They're using it for the purpose to get intoxicated," said Deputy Jay Lessley, a drug recognition expert with the Utah County Sheriff's Office.

This remains a public health risk because if a person gets high on spice and then gets behind the wheel, that person is intoxicated and is putting other drivers or pedestrians in danger, he said.



It may not be as inherently dangerous as other drugs, but it can be a gateway drug or is being used to replace other drug use. Also, we still have no idea what possible long-term effects could be or in some cases even the short-term effects.

"They may get something out of it that is entirely unexpected," Dr. Micah Smith, an ER physician at Timpanogos Regional Hospital, said.

Rick Visser, who is a counselor with the Alcohol and Chemical Treatment Center at Ogden Regional Medical Center, said he has had two patients recently who used spice while in aftercare for drug abuse recovery; both said the perfectly legal activity became a gateway back into harder drugs.

"They saw no harm in it," Visser said. "If it's legal, if they sell it, there's nothing wrong with it."



We don't have enough information to make a good judgment call.

The reaction shouldn't be a knee jerk response to fear, said Chris Kooring, president of the Salt Lake chapter of The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. There isn't enough science behind the use of spice as a drug to determine if it's causing serious problems for people using it.

"We're not really seeing a lot of emergent problems," he said.

He said one danger of prohibition that needs to be considered is what people are going to find to replace its use and whether the replacement is better or worse than the original.

"People are using it, they are getting high from it," Kooring said.



It is a fad. Don't worry so much.

"One of the discussions is, do we really want to do anything about this?" said Dr. Glen Hanson, who is the executive director of the Utah Addiction Center and on the advisory committee looking at spice.

He's not denying that it's a drug, that people are using it to get high and that long-term effects from using spice are unknown and potentially dangerous. But realistically, he suspects that teenagers hear about it and want to try it, so it seems really fun for a while, and then its popularity will fade. The less attention drawn to spice usage, the lower it'll be and the quicker it'll be gone, Hanson guessed.



Banning spice will do the same thing other prohibitions have done: make law-abiding citizens criminals and create other alternatives that can be much worse. If spice is legal, more people may use it instead of meth, heroin, cocaine or prescription narcotics. Richard Tibly, 19, of Payson, said he thinks most of the stigma against spice as well as marijuana is because of religion, when in reality, both are fairly harmless compared to other drugs.

"I'd rather have somebody smoke pot than use OxyContin or Lortab," he said.


DUI, legality and other criminal questions.

Terrin Memmott, 19, of Payson, and his friend Holli Butler, also 19 and of Payson, were pulled over earlier this year while Butler driving them out of Payson Canyon and Memmott was smoking spice. They drove right past a police officer.

"He pulled us over and asked if I'd been smoking anything because he could smell it," Memmott said.


The officer took the joint, called dispatch and said he had half a gram of spice, then handed the joint back to Memmott and let them go. Butler, had she been smoking, could have been arrested for DUI; the law does not differentiate between legal and illegal drugs, only the level of intoxication.

Deputy Jay Lessley said he has arrested one person for driving under the influence of spice. According to the Utah County Sheriff's Office, no incidents involving spice were reported prior to 2010, but since the start of this year there have been 28.

However, the actual use of spice isn't illegal. Lawmakers are looking at it to see if it should be.

Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman is drafting a law regarding the use of spice in the unincorporated areas of Utah County. What exactly that law is going to ban is ambiguous; the term "spice" constitutes a large number of substances with similar but not identical chemical makeups.

That law would go before the County Commission for approval.

The Utah Legislature raised the issue in its 2010 session, and it most likely will come up again in 2011, said Paul Ray, R-Clinton. He sponsored a bill a couple of years ago related to another drug, salvia divinorum, but decided to pull that bill in lieu of creating an advisory committee to look at salvia, an herbal hallucinogen of sorts, soma, a prescription muscle relaxant, and Tramadol, a pain medication. As parents and doctors started coming to him with concerns about spice, he asked the advisory committee to look into its use as well.

The gut reaction is to ban any drug, he said, but the first important determination to make was if spice use represents much of a danger or if it is a fad. The advisory committee, comprised of doctors and other health professionals, should have a report back on spice in October. That will allow legislators to move forward with accurate information.

"A lot of what we do is based on emotion in the Legislature," he said.

Dr. Glen Hanson, who is on the advisory committee, said spice use likely is a fad that will go away. Additionally, he's not sure banning it will help, since Huffman created about 150 of these compounds. One has cropped up. By the time it's banned in Utah, if the Legislature takes that route, about two years will have passed since spice laced with JWH-018 entered the market. One down, 149 to go.

"Do the math," he said. "It takes two to three years to ban this. These folks have a lot more of these drugs than you or I are going to live."


Possible effects of a ban

Brandon Bigler, who works for Stogies, said spice is a good seller but not having it wouldn't break the company. He just needed the Legislature to give him enough time to sell out the inventory they have. There has been at least one burglary to go after spice at Stogies Smoke Shop. Provo police reported a burglary on Feb. 14; Bigler said the man who broke in went straight for the spice.

A.N., a clerk at a smoke shop in north Utah County, said some days more than half of his sales are from spice, and losing that product line would hurt. It's a big moneymaker, but one he wouldn't mind seeing criminalized. He doesn't even like to sell it, he said.

Whether it will be is still as questionable about what the chemical does to users. But there needs to be something, some say.

"It's just tough," said Sgt. Wayne Keith with the sheriff's office. "It really is tough going out and seeing these young kids under the influence of this kind of stuff and there's really nothing we can do."


A Personal Story


His sister found the pipe; then Joseph, who was checking his son’s bank account, found a charge at a smoke shop.


Joseph and Shelly remember those satisfying moments when their teenage children emphatically said they were never going to abuse drugs.

The southern Utah County couple remember looking at their smart, clean-cut oldest and thinking he wasn't the type to use drugs. He knew better. He understood the Word of Wisdom, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint's code of health. He wanted to be a doctor and make the baseball team.


So it wasn't until a couple of years later, looking back to when he didn't make the baseball team but many of his friends did, that they saw a change in him. New friends. Lack of interest in hobbies. Emotional withdrawals. Darkness followed him, Shelly said; she just didn't realize it for so long because she wanted to believe that the time they caught him with marijuana really was the first time, that the pipe his sister found in his jacket pocket really did belong to his friend, that her son, the little baby who first made her a mother almost two decades ago, was not abusing drugs.

Jason started using marijuana in high school, although his parents didn't find out right away. They found the evidence later and confronted him; he confessed to using it a few times, like when his mission papers were taking longer than expected to process because of minor medical concerns like an iron deficiency. That was in May 2009, shortly after he turned 19.

"That was really hard for him, and so he went and got high," Shelly said.

"He said that was the first time," Joseph said. "That's just, I think, when he started to become careless."

Just after Thanksgiving and six weeks into his mission, Jason returned home because of unresolved issues. He opted not to return to his mission and started school at UVU. His parents aren't sure at what point his friends told him about spice, a drug that could give him the effects of marijuana without jeopardizing his ability to get a job because of a failed drug test. He started smoking it, getting high multiple times a day.

His sister found the pipe; then Joseph, who was checking Jason's bank account, found a charge at a smoke shop. He went in and told the clerk that his son was smoking spice and he wanted to know what it was. She told him it was legal marijuana. He confronted Jason.

Shelly remembers the confrontation. It happened in May at about the same time their daughter was graduating from high school. Jason told them he was smoking spice but said it was fine, the drug was legal. They checked his phone later; a friend texted him to ask how his parents responded. He texted back, saying he guessed things were OK because his parents didn't say much.

They most certainly were not OK, they said. They were just too stunned and underinformed that they had no idea what to say.

"It's devastating," Shelly said.

"At first it was infuriating to me," Joseph said, remembering the discussions about illegal drugs and how Jason said he would never do that. "Now this has come along, and there's a justification for them there."

Jason moved out a couple of months ago; his parents set some house rules and he chose not to live by them. He works a couple of part-time jobs now and is still smoking spice. His sister closest in age to him feels older than him and seems a little ashamed about his choices; the other teenage sibling has a pretty good idea of what's going on. The 11-year-old and 5-year-old just know something's not right.

"She just knows that her brother's not living at the house anymore and she wishes that he was," Shelly said of the 5-year-old.

Joseph and Shelly have made it a life mission now to educate people about spice. Months ago, when they first learned of it, they started asking around; no one had heard of it. Other parents didn't know anything about it. Law enforcement couldn't do much. So now they're telling people about it, they're telling people that even the good kids may be smoking it and they're telling parents to watch for warning signs: secrecy, changes in behavior, withdrawing from family, new friends, not being where they say they will be or with who they said they would be with.

"We have learned that you have to be proactive and not take anything for granted," Joseph said, including checking up on children and challenging them when they've lied or not given you all the information. "We didn't. We took his word for it, and his word wasn't any good."

** Names have been changed

Copyright 2015 Daily Herald. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Follow the Daily Herald