Last month, 13 people in San Diego, California were hospitalized after suffering from an overdose of the synthetic drug Spice. In April, more than 300 people in Mississippi and Alabama were sent to the emergency room under similar circumstances. The immediate symptoms of a Spice overdose include seizures, hallucinations, increased heart rate, suicidal thoughts, anxiety attacks and uncontrollable rage, but the long-term effects have yet to be documented.
Spice, also known as synthetic marijuana, is a designer drug that mimics the effects of cannabis. Starting in the early 2000s, synthetic cannabis blends have been sold in gas stations and convenience stores across the U.S., sometimes marketed as "herbal incense" and other times as "herbal smoking blends." A study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse revealed that Spice is the second-most frequently used illicit substance among high-school seniors, behind marijuana.
On June 18, 1971, President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse "public enemy number one in the United States," and ever since then, the country has been fighting a losing battle. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that advocates for an end to the war on drugs, the U.S. spends over $51 billion each year on these initiatives. Marijuana prohibition alone costs the state and federal government close to $20 billion a year. Out of the 1.5 million people arrested on nonviolent drug charges in 2014, more than 600,000 were arrested for violating weed law, with 88 percent of those charges for possession only.
The never-ending U.S. war on drugs and the severe punishments associated with marijuana possession have directly contributed to the increased demand for synthetic cannabis blends. Over the years, Spice manufacturers have altered their recipes in order to circumvent new laws, effectively making their products more potent and dangerous to consumers. Chemists have access to hundreds of synthetic cannabinoids that could potentially be substituted for the banned ones, which is why lawmakers have struggled to keep the product off the street.
Lewis Nelson, a medical toxicologist at the NYU School of Medicine, said, "People have the mind-set that this is ‘just pot,’ but it’s not ... It's really quite different, and the effects are much more unpredictable. It's dangerous, and there is no quality control in what you are getting."
Although Spice packets are labeled "Not For Human Consumption," most customers are not buying it to be used as incense. But, because it's marketed as incense, cashiers don't have to ask customers to see an ID. A national survey found one in nine teens has tried the designer drug.
"It's nasty ... You smoke it and you’re high for only 15 minutes. Then it gives you a mad headache. You can get real weed for cheaper. But it’s legal, and you don’t have to worry about anything," said 18-year-old Jamal Morrison.
The appeal of Spice is fairly obvious: It will not get you arrested and it won't show up on drug tests, but the dangers of the synthetic drug are immeasurable. In a recent report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 15 people have died from using synthetic cannabinoids in the past year. As far as we know, no one has ever died from smoking marijuana.
Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington have all legalized recreational-pot smoking, and medical marijuana is currently legal in 23 states. Legal weed is the fastest-growing industry in the U.S., currently valued at $2.7 billion. But no matter how profitable it may be, marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.
As long as it's against the law to smoke weed, people will continue to turn to synthetic alternatives. And as long as people keep buying their product, Spice makers will keep looking for legal loopholes, regardless of how many consumers are hurt along the way.
December 22, 2015
Pablo Alveraz | Above The Influence
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