FAQ: K2, Spice Gold, and Herbal 'Incense'
Legal Herbal Products Laced With Designer Drugs: Not Your Father's Marijuana
Editor's note: On March 1, 2011, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration invoked its "emergency scheduling authority" to make most "legal high" products illegal. The relatively inactive herbs used in these products are spiked with potent designer drugs. The DEA action applies to five of these drugs: JWH-018, JWH-073, JWH-200, CP-47,497, and cannabicyclohexanol. The drugs are now on the DEA's Schedule I, meaning they have no accepted medical use and high potential for abuse. The emergency action will remain in effect for a year, during which time the government is expected to call for permanent control of the drugs.
March 5, 2010 -- K2, Spice Gold, and dozens of other currently legal "herbal incense" products are spiked with powerful designer drugs -- and they don't show up in drug tests.
As early as 2004, this type of product began appearing for sale on the Internet and in head shops in Europe. By 2008, sales throughout Europe soared; U.S. and Canada sales took off in 2009.
"I believe it is everywhere in the United States," Marilyn Huestis, PhD, chief of chemistry and drug metabolism at the National Institute for Drug Abuse, tells WebMD.
Package labels feature psychedelic art and claim that the contents are a mixture of various herbs. But unlike smoking the herbs listed on the label, smoking the products produces effects similar to those of marijuana, hashish, and other forms of cannabis.
"Hospitals in Europe began to report instances where a person appeared with all the symptoms of cannabis intoxication, but their drug screen was negative," Huestis says.
Users, parents, public health officers, and enforcement agencies all want to know: What really is in these products? How safe are they? Are they addictive?
Here are WebMD's answers to these and other FAQs.
What drugs are in K2, Spice Gold, and other herbal incense products?
Initial tests of Spice Gold and similar products found no illegal substances and were not able to detect active ingredients that could explain the "high" they produced in users. The tests also were unable to detect most of the herbs the products were supposed to contain.
Finally, in late 2008, Volker Auwarter, ScD, and colleagues in the forensic toxicology lab at the University Hospital Freiburg, Germany, found that the products contained at least two different designer drugs known as synthetic cannabinoids.
The drugs detected by Auwarter had the same chemical signal as drugs detected -- but not identified -- in samples of Spice brand product tested privately by the user-oriented Erowid drug information web site in 2007.
Like THC, the active ingredient in marijuana and other forms of cannabis, these synthetic cannabinoids turn on the cannabinoid receptors found on many cells in the body. The brain is particularly rich in the CB1 cannabinoid receptor.
But most synthetic cannabinoids are quite different chemical structures from THC. And unlike cannabis, the new drugs have never been tested in humans.