Skip to content

What is Spice/K2? (It’s Not “Synthetic Marijuana”)

Following last week's mass drug overdose in New Haven, Connecticut - in which more than 100 people were treated for symptoms such as vomiting, convulsing, and passing out - some may be wondering exactly what K2 and Spice are, and why this drug is called "synthetic marijuana" and "herbal incense." These labels are misleading, especially when the product is marketed as a safe alternative to cannabis.

K2, Spice, and other brands of herbal incense including Black Mamba, Krypton, and Kronic, are designer drugs that are created when manufacturers spray synthetic cannabinoids onto dried plant matter (usually damiana leaf or mugwort). The leaf, which is smoked, is the vehicle that holds the drug. These chemical compounds are called synthetic cannabinoids because of their similarity to the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis.

The use of the term "synthetic marijuana" may cause users to expect an effect similar to cannabis. However, just because the chemical makeup is similar cannabinoids is no guarantee of how users will react to the psychoactive drug. Those who smoke herbal incense may be seeking effects such as elevated mood, relaxation, and altered perception, but, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, side effects can include extreme anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations, vomiting, violent behavior, suicidal thoughts, and more.

Furthermore, users of herbal incense can't be sure what chemicals have been used in the product or in what quantity. Investigative journalist Hamilton Morris said he traveled to China in 2016 and visited a lab that was producing synthetic cannabinoids in the same space it was manufacturing drugs for baldness and acne, antibiotics, and ketamine derivatives.

"[T]he issue is not that [synthetic cannabinoids] come from China - virtually everything is manufactured in China," Morris said in an interview with Vice. "The issue is that they are sold in blends where users can't predict the strength of what they are ingesting because the law necessitates deceptive labeling."

In the New Haven incident, an emergency department physician at Yale New Haven Hospital said that the DEA confirmed the presence fentanyl in the K2 that was consumed there, according to the New Haven Register. Other batches of herbal incense have been found to contain brodifacoum, which is used as a rat poison, according to Scientific American. Because the chemicals used in batches can vary in type and potency, users of herbal incense may never be sure of what they're consuming.

Herbal incense is illegal because it contains either controlled substances or analogues of controlled substances. Many synthetic cannabinoids have been added to Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. This status is reserved for substances with a high potential for abuse; no currently accepted use for medical treatments in the US; and a lack of acceptable safety for use under medical supervision.

Despite the potential dangers of herbal incense, it can still sometimes be purchased through normal retail channels. For example, a convenience store owner in Long Island, New York, was sentenced last week to a year and one day in prison for selling K2 packaged in glitter bags bearing cartoon characters and brand names such as "OMG," "AK47," "Joker," and "Hayze Peachy King."

Want to learn more about psychoactive products such as herbal incense and bath salts? Download LegitScript's Designer Drugs FAQ to get insight from our experts about these dangerous products.


David Khalaf is a writing, communications, and marketing professional with specialties in media, investigations, content strategy, and writing instruction. His 20 years of writing, media, and communications work have included two top-tier universities (USC and UCLA), print and digital magazines, consulting firms, and technology companies.

His current work involves content strategy and development at LegitScript, a company that helps the world's leading search engines, payment service providers, and internet platforms and marketplaces do business with legitimate, legally operating entities in more than 80 countries and 15 languages around the world. LegitScript specializes in risk and compliance for highly regulated industries including CBD/cannabis, online gambling, cryptocurrencies, drugs, financial trading, online adult, scams and fraud, and more.

Recent Blog Articles

Synthetic identity fraud

What You Need to Know About Synthetic Identity Fraud

LegitScript noticed an increase in the sale of fraudulent document services, including fake IDs, synthetic identities, and artificial intelligence (AI) passport photo generators. Read further to understand how this trend appears to align with an emergence of more effective methods of stealing and fa...
proposed changes to DSHEA

Proposed Changes to DSHEA Could Impact You — Here’s How

According to the Pew Research Center, many US consumers believe that the current regulatory authority of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't adequately protect them. Read further to discover the potential impact of the FDA's proposed changes to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education...

Problematic Product Spotlight: Tainted Royal Honey

Products Claiming to Enhance Sexual Performance Have Experienced a Surge in Popularity No longer relegated to the shelves of gas stations and corner stores, dietary supplements or other products claiming to enhance sexual performance have experienced a surge in popularity within e-commerce marketpla...
LegitScript updates advisory committee policies and seeks to invite new members.

LegitScript Relaunches Its Addiction Treatment Certification Advisory Committee — and Seeks New Members

In an effort to strengthen avenues of communication and identify opportunities for optimizing the client journey, LegitScript is relaunching its Addiction Treatment Certification Advisory Committee. Keep reading to learn how this may impact you. LegitScript Bolsters Collaboration Efforts With Organi...