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Spice Addition Explained

Since the turn of the millennium, the UK has been afflicted by a new drug which is now causing tremendous problems throughout the country: spice. Thousands of Britons are now addicted to this former “legal high”, and spice abuse has now reached epidemic levels, with Lincolnshire Police and Crime Commissioner Marc Jones describing [1] it as “the most severe public health issue we have faced in decades”.

Spice Addiction

Addiction is a disorder of the brain’s reward system. In the case of spice addiction specifically, it is characterised by the compulsion to engage in rewarding behaviour, regardless of an awareness of the adverse consequences of doing so. Spice addiction is often accompanied by spice dependence – the system of someone regularly consuming spice becomes accustomed to certain levels of the drug. Subsequently, they become reliant upon it for normal functioning.

Because of the illicit nature of spice and its relatively recent arrival as a recreational drug, research into its properties and the mechanism of addiction is fairly limited. Furthermore, the sheer variety of different chemicals sold and marketed as “spice” (or other brand names) means that, if someone becomes addicted to the drug, it is often very difficult for doctors to establish precisely what chemicals they have been consuming and exactly what has caused dependence. In many cases, it appears that various different substances have each been consumed regularly enough, and in sufficient quantities, to lead to the development of dependence. Someone with a spice addiction may have a dependence to numerous chemicals simultaneously.

What Is Spice?

Spice is a street name for any of a range of drugs typically found in the form of chopped-up plant matter (which is then smoked) which have been sprayed with or soaked in synthetic cannabinoids. Synthetic cannabinoids are designer drugs which bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain and body (the same receptors affected by THC and CBD – cannabinoids found in cannabis). Because of this, synthetic cannabinoids have frequently been described as “synthetic marijuana” or “artificial marijuana”. During the period in which they were legal in the UK (prior to 2016), they were often marketed as such by vendors.

However, the effects of spice can differ very substantially from those of cannabis. Hence, the description of spice as “synthetic marijuana” has led to huge problems for users who approached spice in the same way as they did cannabis – a drug significantly less addictive, intoxicating and dangerous than spice.

The name “spice” itself comes from one of the earliest and most popular brands of synthetic cannabinoids to be sold in the UK. However, it has become a generic term used to describe any synthetic cannabinoid – or, indeed, any smokable drug in the form of plant matter sold on the street. The lack of regulation and quality control, and the ease with which intoxicating chemicals can be applied to plant-based materials mean that what can be sold and bought on the streets of the UK as “spice” could be quite literally anything, including a number of toxic chemicals.

Other Names for Synthetic Cannabinoids

Before synthetic cannabinoids (along with various other so-called “research chemicals”) were made illegal in the UK in 2016, they were frequently known as “legal highs” and many different brands were produced and sold. Many users continue to refer to synthetic cannabinoids by some of these erstwhile brand names, despite the fact that typically they are no longer provided under these brands:

  • K2
  • Black Mamba
  • Bombay Blue
  • Genie
  • Zohai
  • Banana Cream Nuke
  • Krypton
  • Lava Red
  • Skunk
  • Moon Rocks
  • Yucatan Fire
  • Fake Weed

History of Synthetic Cannabinoids in the UK

Although the first synthetic cannabinoids were developed as far back as the 1940s, and several of the chemicals began to be used clinically from the 1980s onwards, it was only after the start of the new millennium that they began to be commonly used recreationally. Because they differed chemically from the active ingredients in cannabis, they were not technically illegal in the UK (and many other countries) and as a result, synthetic cannabinoid began to be sold in growing quantities in shops around the country, with the brand Spice reaching the market in early 2006.

Shortly after coming onto the market, synthetic cannabinoids began to be associated with a range of disturbing symptoms – often very unlike those of typical cannabis intoxication – in users, many of whom were reported to be in “zombie-like” states. Nevertheless, their legal status, widespread availability and the strong “high” they produced saw an explosion in the demand for synthetic cannabinoids. A host of other brands joined Spice on shelves around the country, containing many different synthetic cannabinoids. Some were many times more potent than JWH-018 (the active ingredient in Spice).

As the market for synthetic cannabinoids grew, so too did an awareness of the problems associated with them. In particular, their potential for causing extreme intoxication and dangerous side effects. A number of deaths began to be linked to the consumption of synthetic cannabinoids, while the drugs’ addictive qualities became increasingly obvious.

Spice itself – and JWH-018 – were banned in the UK along with various other synthetic cannabinoids in 2009. By then, however, a great many other brands with different chemical formulae had come onto the market. Many were being imported from manufacturers in China and elsewhere who were investing significant resources into developing new chemicals to stay ahead of legislative changes. Another raft of bans was introduced in 2013, but again new compounds were brought onto the market to dodge these restrictions.

However, with the damage being wrought by synthetic cannabinoids now plain to see in the form of countless highly intoxicated users, the government decided to act decisively: The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 banned all psychoactive drugs. Including any yet to be discovered, the list excluded only other than alcohol, tobacco and nicotine, caffeine, medicines, and drugs already regulated by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Unfortunately, the change in the law did not solve the spice problem in Britain. Despite being illegal, synthetic cannabinoids have become firmly established as recreational substances. Their use is now widespread throughout the country, proving particularly problematic in prisons and amongst the homeless community. Spice abuse in the UK has been described as an epidemic by many authorities, and its cost to society continues to grow year-on-year.

Legal status

Spice itself, and other synthetic cannabinoids are currently class-B controlled substances in the UK, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison and an unlimited fine for possession. For supply, the penalties can reach 14 years’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine. There is currently a campaign to have synthetic cannabinoids upgraded to class-A controlled substances (the most serious restriction).

Because of the huge number of different chemicals now sold as spice, it is possible that someone possessing spice could, in fact, be in unwitting possession of a class-A controlled substance.

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Contents of Synthetic Cannabinoid Blends

Since synthetic cannabinoids were banned in the UK and their manufacture and supply were driven underground, the precise contents of drugs sold as spice are often a mystery to all but their producers. Spice sold on the street could have any of a wide range of plants as a base. Pre-criminalisation, packages of synthetic cannabinoids claimed to include plants such as alfalfa, nettle leaf, marshmallow, waterlily, honey weed, rose hip, blue violet, dwarf skullcap and others. The specific synthetic cannabinoid used as an active ingredient could be any of literally hundreds of chemical compounds developed in recent decades.

Unscrupulous producers have also been known to apply substances other than synthetic cannabinoids – including other recreational drugs, and even various toxic household or industrial chemicals – to plant matter which is then sold as spice.

Routes of Administration

When applied to plant matter, synthetic cannabinoids are typically smoked, either in rolled-up “joints” (with or without tobacco) or through pipes, bongs or other paraphernalia. Recently, they have also become available in concentrated liquid form, which can then be applied to tobacco or other smokable material, or even ingested neat.

How Spice Works in the Body and Brain

Synthetic cannabinoids act upon the same receptors in the brain and body as does THC – tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in cannabis – but with much greater effect. Synthetic cannabinoids have an especially significant binding affinity – and thus greater potency – to the CB1 cannabinoid receptor located in the central nervous system.

When stimulated by cannabinoids, CB1 receptors inhibit the release of glutamate [2] and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) from neurons in the brain and central nervous system, creating a relaxing and euphoric high. However, many synthetic cannabinoids and other substances sold as spice also affect non-cannabinoid receptors and other parts of the brain in a huge variety of ways. Without knowing the precise contents of any given batch of spice, it is impossible to know with a 100% certainty what the effects of consuming it will be.

What Are the Risks Associated with Spice and Similar Drugs?

The health impact of consuming spice can be extremely serious. A number of deaths from synthetic cannabinoid overdose [3] have been reported. Additionally, many users have also experienced negative effects including nausea, vomiting, loss of consciousness, confusion, seizures, extreme anxiety, palpitations, paranoia, pulmonary and cardiovascular problems, agitation, stroke and loss of motor control.

As research deepens into the effects of synthetic cannabinoids, a link has been established between the consumption and the development of psychosis. Typically, psychosis develops as a result of long-term synthetic cannabinoid abuse, but a number of cases have been reported of psychosis manifesting after only a small number of doses and instances of consumption. Various other mental health disorders have also been linked with spice consumption, especially long-term use.

Spice intoxication and subsequent impaired consciousness and motor control can lead to serious accidents. Possessing spice is against the law, and serious legal consequences can result from involvement in spice abuse – especially for individuals supplying the drug to others. Users may also become involved in criminal activity, including theft and prostitution, as a way of funding their purchases of spice, or as a consequence of associating with spice dealers (especially if they find themselves indebted to the latter).

Is Spice Addictive?

It is now widely accepted that Spice and other synthetic cannabinoids are substantially more addictive both psychologically and physically than cannabis itself.Some users who have developed physical dependence have reported withdrawal symptoms lasting weeks or even months.

A serious problem with the use of other substances in spice sold on the street is that users may become addicted to spice without being aware of exactly

what substance or substances they have become addicted to. This significantly complicates any addiction treatment with which they may be provided, and also makes it effectively impossible to determine exactly how addictive spice is.

How addiction develops

Spice addiction develops when a user repeatedly consumes spice over a period of time. The user’s reward system adapts to the repeated consumption of spice, with its pleasurable effects driving the desire to repeatedly experience them. As spice consumption continues, the reward centres in the brain acclimatise to the repeated engagement in that behaviour. The release of chemicals including dopamine creates feelings of reward and satisfaction. Similarly, the absence of those chemicals when spice is not consumed creates unpleasant feelings which drive the user to consume spice again.

Dependence develops when a user consumes spice repeatedly and their brain and body become reliant on the presence of certain levels of whatever active chemicals are in that particular batch of spice to function normally. Once dependence has developed, the absence of those chemicals from the system will prompt the abnormal functioning of the affected parts of the brain and body. Various unpleasant and potentially dangerous symptoms can manifest. They are collectively known as withdrawal syndrome.

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The Illegality of Spice

Spice itself, along with other synthetic cannabinoids, was banned in the UK in 2009. Other research chemicals which may be found in spice were rendered illegal in 2016, similarly potentially resulting in imprisonment and a fine for anyone possessing or supplying them. Meanwhile, some batches of spice may contain class-A controlled substances, increasing the penalties potentially levied on users and suppliers.

Synthetic cannabinoids are also illegal in numerous other countries, including in much of the rest of the EU.

Toxicity of Synthetic Cannabinoids

The relative paucity of research into synthetic cannabinoids means that a comprehensive understanding of their toxicity has not yet been reached. It is known that some synthetic cannabinoids are significantly more toxic than others, and that they have had extremely deleterious effects on the health of users.

Risk Factors for Abuse of Spice

Various risk factors have been identified as increasing the likelihood that an individual will abuse spice, including:

  • abuse during childhood
  • age at which cannabinoid use was initiated: the earlier an individual engages in the use of cannabinoids, the greater the likelihood that they will go on to abuse spice and to develop an addiction to it
  • genetic predisposition: a family history of substance abuse is a leading risk factor for spice abuse, as are any of a wide variety of hereditary mental health issues
  • personality factors: risk-taking behaviour, low self-esteem, and a desire to show off are all known to be risk factors for the abuse of spice

Spice Abuse and Teens

Experimentation with substances of abuse is often seen to be something of a rite of passage for young people. Spice can be particularly attractive in this regard due to its comparatively widespread availability and relatively low cost. Unfortunately, young people are especially susceptible to the development of some of the mental health issues associated with spice abuse. However, the consumption of spice and especially addiction to it have seriously detrimental consequences for academic and social development, with potentially lifelong ramifications.

If you believe a young person close to you is abusing spice, contact an addiction specialist to discuss how best to tackle the issue. Do not attempt to intervene without advice, and always prioritise your safety and that of those around you.

Spice Abuse & Addiction Signs, Effects & Symptoms

Because of the stigma associated with addiction, addicts frequently go to great lengths to hide their condition. As a result, it can be very difficult to identify a spice addiction even in someone close to you. Nevertheless, various symptoms of addiction may betray the condition, including:

  • frequent intoxication
  • changes in sleeping patterns
  • changes in eating habits
  • altered sex drive and sexual preferences
  • changes in peer group
  • adoption of new vocabulary
  • financial troubles, possibly displayed by frequent requests for money
  • decreased professional and/or academic performance
  • engagement in criminal activity
  • a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • relationship problems
  • withdrawal from social circles and distancing from friends
  • depression
  • health problems associated with substance abuse
  • isolation
  • mood swings
  • a changed outlook on life
  • lack of care about appearance and hygiene

Physical signs of spice abuse

Spice abuse specifically may be identified via a number of physical symptoms, including:

  • excessive sweating
  • agitation
  • hallucinations
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • slurred speech
  • shakiness
  • greatly increased hunger or thirst
  • seizures and tremors
  • coma and unconsciousness
  • paranoia
  • numbness and tingling
  • very high blood pressure and heart rate
  • anxiety and panic attacks
  • threatening behaviour and aggression
  • terrible headaches

Cognitive signs and symptoms

Certain cognitive symptoms can also betray the presence of spice abuse, including:

  • increased anxiety
  • agitation
  • delusions
  • disordered thinking
  • paranoia

Physical, Emotional and Social Effects of Spice Abuse

Seizures and stroke resulting from spice abuse can cause permanent debilitation, as can spice-related pulmonary and cardiovascular problems. Permanent neurological damage has also been linked with long-term spice abuse [4]. Meanwhile, the impact of spice addiction on the addict’s health can also be very significant as a result of decreased hygiene and nutrition, exposure to disease (especially as a result of risky behaviour), and a greatly increased likelihood of accident and involvement in violence.

Spice abuse can take a huge emotional toll, with individual users becoming alienated from friends and family and experiencing significantly reduced life circumstances, possibly involving job loss, significant debt, a criminal record, and even destitution – all having potentially devastating emotional consequences.

The physical health impact of spice abuse can also have very serious emotional ramifications. Spice users – especially those addicted to spice – can feel great despair and hopelessness, often seeing no way out from their condition or from the reduced circumstances to which it may have led. Rates of self-harm and suicide are significantly higher among spice users than for the general population.

Violent crime associated with spice abuse [5] has skyrocketed over the last five years, as has property crime including theft and burglary. Intoxication due to spice use is now an unfortunately common sight on the streets of Britain’s towns and cities, often creating fear and distress amongst those witnessing it.

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Diminished Learning Capacity and Synthetic Cannabinoids

Multiple studies have shown a link between chronic synthetic cannabinoid consumption and permanent cognitive impairment [6], including deficiencies in memory, information processing and verbal reasoning. Some studies suggest that synthetic cannabinoids can permanently diminish learning capacity in both young people and adults.

Synthetic Cannabinoids and Psychosis

Synthetic cannabinoids are now believed to have the potential to both cause and exacerbate psychosis in users. Long-term psychotic disorders can be triggered by synthetic cannabinoid consumption, especially long-term use, while psychosis is also known to be a possible symptom of synthetic cannabinoid withdrawal – with some users demonstrating psychotic symptoms for weeks and even months after the total cessation of use.

Spice Addiction Treatment & Rehab

Treating spice addiction can be significantly more complex than the treatment of other forms of addiction because of the great variety of chemicals which can be found in different batches of spice. Fortunately, one consequence of the proliferation of spice abuse over recent years has been a growth in the number of residential rehabilitation (rehab) facilities and organisations treating spice addiction in the UK, and in the expertise of mental health professionals treating the condition.

Withdrawal and detox from spice

Spice addiction treatment typically begins with a period of detoxification (detox). During this period, the expert team in the rehab centre will help cleanse the system from spice and other substances of abuse in order to overcome any dependence prior to the commencement of therapy and other treatment methods. During detox, withdrawal symptoms are likely to manifest in any dependent individual, which may be alleviated to a degree by medication in some instances.

Because withdrawal can be dangerous, it is absolutely vital that you do not attempt to undergo detox independently. Detox and withdrawal should always be monitored and assisted by medical professionals. Always consult a doctor if you are considering detoxing from spice addiction.

Common withdrawal signs and symptoms

Though each case of withdrawal will differ from one person to the next – and will be affected significantly by the specific chemicals consumed as spice – some common spice withdrawal symptoms include:

  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • sleep disturbances

Duration of withdrawal effects

The duration of spice withdrawal will vary from one individual to the next. Some users have reported withdrawal lasting around a week, while others –  several months. This is mostly due to the variety of different chemicals which can be found in different batches of spice.

Some users may develop post-acute, or protracted, withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) with symptoms persisting even years.

Treatment and therapies

Treatment will typically begin with a period of detoxification, followed by a therapy phase. Therapy lies at the heart of addiction treatment, as it can both uncover and address the psychological causes of substance abuse and addiction, enabling addicts to understand the behaviours which have led to their condition, and providing them with a range of psychological defence mechanisms against relapse.

A great many different therapy models and methodologies are applied in addiction treatment, provided in both group and one-to-one settings. Each client will be assessed prior to starting their programme, so that the centre can create a personalised treatment plan. Therapies may include DBT, CBT, art therapies, psychoanalysis, meditation and more.

Inpatient or Residential

Inpatient rehab typically involves a stay of between one and three months in a secure and confidential facility whose relaxed environment is conducive to healing. Detoxification is managed on-site by experienced professionals, and a holistic treatment programme will contain bespoke dietary and fitness plans and potentially various other elements alongside the core therapy provision. The client has 24/7 help and support, as well as supervision, by a team of expert counsellors, therapists, doctors and nurses.

Outpatient

Perhaps because they do not feel they can take time out from professional and/or family commitments, some individuals do not feel able or willing to attend rehab as inpatients. For them, addiction treatment can be provided in an outpatient setting. However, this can be problematic as it does not remove the addict from their daily environment of substance abuse.

Spice Use and Addiction Facts and Figures

  • The first synthetic cannabinoids were synthesised in the 1940s. The main ingredient in the original Spice brand, JWH-018, was developed in the 1980s by Prof John W. Huffman, after whom it is named.
  • Some synthetic cannabinoids were given names intended to make them more attractive to particular markets. For instance, 2NE1 is the name of a popular South Korean girl band.
  • In the autumn of 2014, over 1,000 spice consumers in Russia were admitted to hospital, 40 of whom died.
  • In 2016-2017, 838 people in Britain presented for treatment for spice abuse, according to the National Treatment Monitoring System (NDTMS) – a “statistically significant” increase on the previous year.
  • Joints of spice can be sold for as little as 50p, and bags for between £5 and £10, in towns and cities across the UK.

Ready to Find Help?

If you are suffering from spice addiction, your condition could kill you. It can also have a number of permanently life-changing implications for your physical and mental health. Fortunately, there are various treatment options now available to individuals struggling with addiction to spice.

If you are one of them and wish to beat your addiction and to resume a healthy life, speak with your GP and/or an addiction specialist today to discuss your situation and to find out about the available spice addiction treatment.

The sooner you are able to seek the help you need, the sooner you can begin to tackle your addiction with professional help and set out on your journey through recovery to a happier and more successful future.

Related FAQ’s

Can spice be used legally?
Although being intoxicated as a result of consuming spice is not technically illegal, using spice involves possessing it which is a criminal offence. Spice and other synthetic cannabinoids are class-B controlled substances in the UK. They are not classified as having any medical usage, and there are no circumstances in which possessing spice outside a strictly controlled research setting is legal.
Can recreational spice smokers become addicted?
Anyone who smokes spice regularly over a period of time can become addicted to it. The only way to be certain of never developing a spice addiction is to never smoke spice at all.
Can someone die from spice withdrawal?
It is difficult to assess exactly how dangerous withdrawal from spice addiction can be because of the huge number of different chemicals sold as “spice”. Withdrawal from synthetic cannabinoids themselves is not usually thought to pose the direct risk of death. However, various other substances which may be found in spice could have the potential to create physical dependence, withdrawal from which could be fatal. Cravings are also a typical withdrawal symptom. These needscan bring forth a relapse. Individuals who relapse after a period of detoxification run the risk of suffering overdose as they consume dosages to which they may previously have been accustomed but which their bodies can now no longer handle. This is why aftercare is important.
Are there any home rehab remedies for spice addiction?
There are now a wide variety of home rehab remedies for sale over the internet. However, these are of dubious medical value, do not have the support of the medical community in the UK, and may themselves be harmful to anyone using them. It is extremely inadvisable to acquire any home rehab remedy if you are struggling with a spice addiction. Because withdrawal can be dangerous, it is imperative that you never attempt to go through detox independently. Always speak with your GP and/or an addiction specialist about safe detox and withdrawal.
How long does spice withdrawal last?
Some individuals have reported spice withdrawal symptoms lasting for around one week; others have experienced withdrawal symptoms several months after cessation of use.
How long does a spice ‘high’ last?
How long a spice high lasts will depend to a great extent on exactly what is in the batch of spice being consumed. Typically, users will report an intense high lasting for up to half an hour, with less intense effects felt for up to eight hours depending on how much spice has been consumed.

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