The sale of a product containing synthetic copies of the active ingredients in cannabis has come under investigation by British and international regulators.
The product, marketed as “Spice”, is one of a growing number of “herbal highs” sold in shops and via the internet. But it is the first that specialists have identified as containing chemical compounds designed to simulate the effects of cannabis.
The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency in the UK is considering legal action against the company Psyche Deli in north London, which produces Spice but has no licence to do so under the Medicines Act.
Sales of Spice have grown sharply in recent months, triggering scrutiny in a number of countries. Late last month Germany and Austria formally outlawed Spice, while US customs officials have seized imports. The European Early Warning System of regulators and police, which tracks the emergence of new drugs and assesses their risks, is also gathering information that may trigger calls for an European Union-wide ban.
“Herbal highs” are purchased in the belief that they act as hallucinogens, stimulants or relaxants, but most have been judged innocuous or have yet to be assessed. The potential qualities of Spice were judged sufficiently hazardous for the MHRA to write to Psyche Deli last autumn cautioning that the company must seek approval under the Medicines Act, which would require clinical testing to show its safety.
Laboratory analysis in Germany has since shown the product also contains at least two additional compounds synthesised by chemists to simulate THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. The two compounds – known as JWH 018 and CP 47497 – are much more potent than naturally occurring THC. Experts say they are relatively simple and cheap to produce, and are sold as “plant hormones” by producers in China. Analysts have found that their concentration in individual packets of Spice vary widely.
No verified testing of the compounds has taken place to demonstrate their risks, although they may at a minimum have the same potential identified risks of increased psychosis and schizophrenia associated with cannabis, as well as of cancer as a result of smoking. But their use is not illegal in the UK.
Boxes of Spice are imported ready-made from Qingdao in China to the office of Psyche Deli and labelled as “Sumos”, promising “flower power”.
The directors of Psyche Deli did not reply to requests for interview, but the company’s auditor confirmed the company had been sold recently to a “head shop” in the Netherlands.
By Andrew Jack
Published: February 14 2009 02:07