photoThe Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is adding "spice," also known as synthetic marijuana, to its list of controlled substances. At least 15 states have already banned the substance, the latest in a long series of drugs claiming to offer a legal high.

Spice, usually sold in head shops, convenience stores and over the Internet, is packaged to look like incense. But the innocuous-looking dried herbs and spices are sprayed with chemicals that resemble the active ingredients in marijuana.

As is often case with synthetic materials, the ingredients in spice are much more potent than most real marijuana and there have been many reports of users suffering seizures, unconsciousness and suicide. The American Association of Poison Control Centers received more than 2,683 reports of human exposure to spice in 2010.

Spice is marketed under a variety of brands, including “Spice,” “K2,” “Blaze,” and “Red X Dawn.” Street names include Bliss, Black Mamba, Bombay Blue, Fake Weed, Genie and Zohai.

“The American public looks to the DEA to protect its children and communities from those who would exploit them for their own gain,” said DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart.  “Makers of these harmful products mislead their customers into thinking that ‘fake pot’ is a harmless alternative to illegal drugs, but that is not the case."

The DEA's one-year ban took effective Dec. 24. It make possessing and selling these chemicals or the products that contain them illegal in the U.S. for at least one year while the DEA and the United States Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) study whether they should be permanently banned.

“Use of these synthetic chemicals is equivalent to playing Russian roulette since most people are unaware of how harmful they are and what the short and long term effects are on their bodies," said Special Agent in Charge John J. Bryfonski, Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Philadelphia Division.

An emergency room doctor at Inova Loudoun Hospital in Virginia told The Washington Post he had treated a "handful" of spice cases over the last year.

"It's dangerous," Edward Puccio said. "We don't know all the risks because it's never been studied."

Doesn't show up

The drug has spread slowly across the country, gaining popularity by word of mouth and via the Internet. It has attracted attention among dedicated pot smokers because, at least for now, it doesn't show up on standard drug screening tests.

“You have to know what chemical it is you’re looking for in a drug test,” Dr. Kathryn Cunningham, director of the Center for Addiction Research at the University of Texas Medical Branch, told the Galveston Daily News.

“From a toxicology perspective, we know little about the chemical compounds in this,” Cunningham said. “They have the same profile as marijuana, but the side effects depend on the dose of synthetic cannabinoids. Some brands could be a whole lot more potent than marijuana.”


A cancer researcher writing under the pseudonym Abel Pharmboy on Scienceblogs.com said that concern over the substance is overblown when compared with methamphetamine and other drugs, but conceded the possibility of serious side effects and said there was "the possibility that it may cause serotonin syndrome, a potentially fatal but relatively rare disorder."

Kansas became the first state to ban spice in early 2010. A statewide ban went into effect in Illinois on Jan. 1. Lawmakers in Nebraska and Virginia are looking at banning the substance.