Toxic 'Spice' substitution becomes yet another reason to get smart on drug policy.
Prohibition-based drug testing is turning would-be cannabis consumers into legal “Spice” heads in a growing form of toxic drug substitution in America.
In 2011, the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 6,348 calls about exposure to the drugs in “Spice.” That number has roughly doubled from 2010, indicating the continued explosion in popularity of this new class of over-the-counter designer drugs.
Public health experts and activists say marijuana prohibition is driving people from a 5,000 year-old herbal remedy to chemicals not tested for human consumption. Spice is often used because it doesn't show up on drug tests. It's also used in lieu of non-available cannabis, or to make cannabis last longer. That makes for unsafe drug policy, especially with regard to heavily drug tested communities like: service-members, police, firefighters, and athletes. Spice abuse is yet another unintended consequence of a drug war that's not founded on fact, but rather ideology.
Commonly sold at head shops, truck stops and other places under the names “Spice” or “K2,” the substances are usually marketed as herbal incense. Looking like herbs coated in powder, they actually contain powerful, sometimes-deadly cocktails of Chinese-made synthetic cannabinoids that people can smoke to get high.
Designed in a lab to trigger the same mammalian neural systems as cannabis, synthetic cannabinoids can act many times stronger than pot and much more negatively, and have reportedly precipitated psychosis, heart attacks, suicides, and convulsions. John W. Huffman, designer of popular synthetic cannabinoids in Spice like JWH-018 has reportedly said, “People who use it are idiots. You don't know what it's going to do to you.”
The fact that people would take such drugs in lieu of cannabis isn't surprising. According to Amanda Reiman, UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare lecturer and a director at the Berkeley Patients Group in Berkeley, “substitution is something that's been around as long as there's been people.”
Substitution is the idea that people make choices about what to do based on safety, efficacy and also what's available or what's legal. Reiman is a subscriber to the public health school of thought known as “harm reduction.” Not tied to some moral “Just Say No” dictate, Harm Reductionists look at the behaviors people engage in and figure out how to improve the end result so it's as harmless as possible to the individual.
Getting people off heroin, methamphetamine, alcohol, or prescription pills and onto cannabis is considered drug substitution that results in harm reduction, because cannabis is less toxic and addictive than heroin, meth, alcohol or prescription drugs, Reiman said.
The issue of cannabis users substituting pot for Spice is complex, because while Spice is more harmful to the body, the consequences for breaking cannabis laws can also be quite harmful.
“If you're taking Spice instead of cannabis because you can go to jail for cannabis and not for Spice, even though Spice is worse for your body by a large margin, you're reducing the potential harm to your life, your freedom your job, your financial stability.
“So it really puts individuals in a really peculiar situation where they're basically choosing between reducing harm to their bodies and reducing harm to their livelihood. That's a choice they're having to make.”
Reiman rejects the dogma of groups like Partnership for a Drug-Free America who would say, 'Don't do any drug ever.'
“They don't understand it's in human nature to alter human consciousness. Sociologists have studied and studied and studied it.”
Does a drug-free America include caffeine, or psychotropic medications, she asks? A world where caffeine is banned would engender a host of negative substitutions, including more meth use, Reiman said.
And lest anyone forget, Americans have already been substituting another legal, toxic substance for cannabis for years, called alcohol. Reiman said 40 percent of medical cannabis patients she's studied use cannabis as a substitute for alcohol. New studies indicate cannabis decriminalization reduces alcohol use and associated drunken driving deaths and suicides, especially among young males.
Mason Tvert, head of SAFER in Colorado not only believes cannabis is a safer substitute for alcohol, he's helping lead the campaign to legalize adult use of cannabis in Colorado in 2012.
“Every objective study on marijuana has concluded that it is a relatively benign substance and is far safer than alcohol, tobacco, and synthetic marijuana products,” Tvert said. “Unfortunately, prohibition is steering people to use these more dangerous substances in order to avoid breaking the law and suffering the significant penalties associated with a marijuana arrest. If we want to reduce the use of synthetic marijuana, it's time we allow adults to make the rational, safer choice to use to use the real thing.”