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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.