The Spice smoking mixture range has been one of the most popular “herbal” smokes ever, and now it’s no suprise why.
To get an idea of just how popular these mixtures are, just take a look at this data from Google’s keyword tool:
That’s over 37,000 searches a month for these three search terms alone — Spice is definitely a customer favourite. I also get no less than 500 emails a day from Russia asking if I can ship it there by the kilo. So what’s behind it all?
This paper [PDF; 246 kB] has some interesting things to say. It turns out that the Spice blends all contain JWH-018 as well as two compounds based on CP 47497 — all of them synthetic cannabinoids. These are man made chemicals designed to tickle the same receptors as THC, the active compound in cannabis, so it’s no wonder these smoking mixtures are so powerful. The difference in potency between the Spice blends appears to be accounted for by increasing levels of these CP 47497 homologues.
Since this discovery, Spice has been banned in several countries, including Austria and Germany. The BBC also reported on it and had the following to say:
The UK drugs regulator, the Medicine and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), is understood to have identified JWH018 in products available in the UK. It is currently in order to determine whether or not it should be classified as a medicinal product — which would mean it should only be available from a doctor.
The UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which advises the government on whether a drug should be made illegal, is also aware of the substance, and is investigating it.
The Spice manufacturers make no mention of these synthetics on their packaging, so a lot of herb-enthusiasts feel somewhat betrayed. Rightly so, I suppose — not being told just what you’re smoking exactly. People have the choice to put things in their body and some Spice smokers might make a different decision if they had all the facts in hand.
The typical reaction to this news seems to be the disgust about putting any of these “unsafe” man-made compounds into their body, as though mother nature was some kind of safety net. “These plants have thousands of years of safe use”, they say! But let’s take a closer look…
Take Kratom, for instance. Kratom contains a powerful compound called mitragynine, which acts upon the opioid receptors; the same targets for opium and its derivatives. One alkaloid in kratom, although present in much smaller quantities, is 7-hydroxymitragynine, which is apparently 17x more potent than morphine! While I wouldn’t call this plant harmful, compared to other drugs like cocaine and heroin, it wouldn’t say it was harmless either. The opioid receptors are a dangerous set of receptors to be messing with — the mu subtype responsible for the classic euphoria that accompanies opiate use also stops you breathing if you tickle them too much. Opiates are also addictive, just like kratom can be if you take too much. While this plant may have seen thousands of years of responsible, moderate use, this is no reassurance at all towards its safety.
Now days, people generally don’t toil in the field every day that Newton sends — we have more free time and money to spend than ever before. We can now afford to use large quantities of kratom every day, as well as other entheogens from around the world, but we don’t have any information about this level of exposure to kratom itself or in combination with other stuff. For all we know, taking a mixture of kratom and Salvia divinorum daily could make your eyeballs explode after day 300, or chronic kratom use might give you some kind of evil superpower. Looking at paracetamol as a rather boring example, if you take the odd one every now and then, you’ll be fine, but if you take 8 pills a day every day for a year, you’ll likely end up with some serious condition. There’s also the fact that modern chemistry can create powerful extracts of these entheogens. Who’s to say they’re safe, just because they come from a plant? And what about any other drugs we might be on? Being on a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor like Prozac for depression isn’t uncommon in today’s society — combine them with the “perfectly safe” Banisteriopsis caapi vine, itself a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, and you have a potentially fatal combination of drugs in your system. I bet there are many more contraindications we haven’t even considered.
What about plants like cannabis and tobacco? They’ve also been used responsibly for thousands of years, but it’s only when so many people start to take these things that we realised “Actually, smoking is bad for us”. Besides, our current medical knowledge means we’ve only recently been able to diagnose these kind of things. I’m not sure I want to trust any data from a period when epilepsy might have been down to a demonic possession. How many adverse health effects could we identify in these ancient entheogen users based on what we know today?
So, while we can be uncertain of the long term effects on health of JWH-018 and friends, it seems we can’t actually be certain about the safety of most of the things we happily consume. Yes, they may turn out to be super toxic (although probably not, if they’re given to lab rats), but at least they only act on your cannabinoid receptors. Kratom tends to be prepared as a tea — once you’ve drunk it, you’ve drunk it. If you’ve taken too much, you’ll realise when its already in your blood. It would be much harder to overdose on these synthetics due to the speed at which they get in your system — if you’re too stoned, you won’t want to smoke any more, never mind being physically able to. The cannabinoid receptors they target are also much safter than the opioid targets of kratom. Cannabinoid receptors seem play a modulatory role, rather than being majorly important, so messing with them doesn’t have as drastic an effect. Smoking too much might make you feel a bit sick and dizzy for a while, but you certainly won’t stop breathing.
In all, I think Spice is in the wrong for not making this clear in the first place, but then I’m not suprised they didn’t want to list these compounds in the current political climate. Maybe when the government realises that it is our right to put things into our own bodies, listing these ingredients wouldn’t be an issue.
Even with this new information however, I’ll still be using the stuff. It’s great!