Police: Risky 'spice' marijuana has sent hundreds to hospitals

"It's like playing Russian roulette. You don't know what it's going to do to you," said organic chemist John W. Huffman.

By Doug G. Ware

MONTGOMERY, Ala., April 16 (UPI) -- A synthetic drug intended to mimic marijuana is a highly risky substance that is largely a mystery to those who smoke it, authorities said Wednesday.

Just ask the hundreds who have been hospitalized recently after using it, they say.


According to health officials, more than 300 users of synthetic marijuana -- known as "spice" -- have made hospital visits over the last month after using the drug. Officials say the main reasons seem to be unnatural chemicals and byproducts that "spice" contains -- elements the user has no real knowledge of.

In Mississippi, 227 people visited emergency rooms since April 2 following use of "spice." In the past month, nearly 100 "suspicious" ER visits in Alabama have led investigators to the same conclusion.

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While "spice" products are often marketed as a natural alternative to marijuana, experts say they are anything but organic. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said the substance is nearly entirely man-made -- and contains elements that are a total mystery to science, at least as far as potential harm or long-term damage goes.


"The [spice maker] buys powder from China, wets it with acetone to make liquid and sprays it over inert plant material," DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno said. "Then they mix that all up [and] let it dry so the acetone evaporates out. The plant material is coated with chemicals. They take that and put it in those little packets."

Effectively, makers of "spice" spray synthetic chemicals onto various herbs or innocuous plants and then market the resulting substance. As such, the effects of using "spice" comes from the chemicals -- not from the plant-like substance it's affixed to, experts say. And because the plant-like material isn't necessary to achieve the users' desired effects, "spice" can be delivered with any number of substances -- like liquid, paper and e-cigarette juice.

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Using "spice" causes effects like hallucinations, increased heart rate, suicidal thoughts and uncontrollable rage, experts say. And that's just the short-term impact, they say. The long-term effects remain unknown.

"We want the public to be aware of the toxic effects and other dangers associated with synthetic marijuana use," Alabama state health officer Dr. Donald Williamson said in an ABC News report.

"Spice" is marketed under numerous brand names and street terms -- such as Black Mamba, K-2 and Mister Smiles -- but is called "spice" because that is the brand name of one of the first distributors of the product.


Whatever the long-term impact of "spice" is, experts believe it's not good. And users are taking an incredible risk by smoking something they know nothing about.

"You don't know what you're getting. You don't know what dosage your getting. You don't know where it came from and it's poisoning our children," Alabama DEA agent Clay Morris said.

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Authorities and the medical community have been aware of synthetic marijuana for years. In 2010, they saw the first real spike in synthetic marijuana-related ailments. After that, they say, instances significantly dropped off -- and increased again only recently.

Morris said what is particularly concerning is that it's taking new forms and that more children seem to be using the substance.

"Kids call them RC or research chemicals on blotter papers. Like LSD, people ingest them or put them under their tongue," he said.

Another problem, officials say, appears to be the substance's ease of access. It can be purchased on the Internet, on the street, or even at hundreds of gas stations and convenience stores across the United States where it's sometimes marketed as herbal incense.


In downtown Salt Lake City, for example, one particular convenience store offers "spice" to anyone who knows to ask the cashier for "Black Mamba" -- which is unadvertised and kept behind the counter.

"It's like playing Russian roulette. You don't know what it's going to do to you," Clemson University organic chemist John W. Huffman said in 2010. "You can get very high on it. It's about 10 times more active than [real marijuana]."

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