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FAQ: K2, Spice Gold, and Herbal 'Incense'

Legal Herbal Products Laced With Designer Drugs: Not Your Father's Marijuana

What drugs are in K2, Spice Gold, and other herbal incense products? continued...

One of these synthetic cannabinoids, JWH-018, was first made in 1995 for experimental purposes in the lab of Clemson University researcher John W. Huffman, PhD.

"In terms of biological activity, these things are similar to THC, the active compound in cannabis," Huffman tells WebMD. "Now the thing is, nobody knows anything about how these new compounds act in the human body. Anecdotal reports say they stick around in the body for quite a long time."

More than 100 different synthetic cannabinoids have been created. In his 2008 study, Auwarter tested seven of the herbal products and found they contained different levels of JWH-018, a synthetic cannabinoid created by Pfizer called CP-47,497, or both.

Since then, Auwarter has found five different synthetic cannabinoids in the products. Huestis estimates that about 10 different synthetic cannabinoids have been detected in the products, usually in some combination.

Are K2, Spice Gold, and other herbal incense products safe?

No. Until a drug is tested, it cannot be considered safe. Not only have synthetic cannabinoids not been tested, nearly all were created for experimental use in animals and cell cultures -- not in humans.

And there are good reasons to believe that some if not all of these drugs are unsafe. JWH-018 and its many cousins, for example, have a chemical structure shared with known cancer-causing agents.

JWH-018 inventor John W. Huffman, PhD, puts it bluntly.

"It is like Russian roulette to use these drugs. We don't know a darn thing about them for real," he tells WebMD.

Most of these drugs were created because they bind much more tightly to the body's cannabinoid receptors than THC does. THC, in fact, only partially binds to these important regulators of body function. Many of the synthetic cannabinoids fully activate the receptors.

"When you take these drugs, you are hijacking the part of the brain important for many functions: temperature control, food intake, perception, memory, and problem solving," Huestis says. "And people taking these high-potency drugs are affecting other important functions throughout their bodies -- hormone functions, for example."

Moreover, cannabinoids also bind CB2, the cannabinoid receptor that helps regulate the immune system.

Finally, all of the effects of these drugs may not become apparent for a long time. That's because they are stored in the body for a long period of time.

"The fact is these drugs have not been tested in humans, and we don't know what they could do," Huestis says. "There may be acute toxicity; there may be long-term toxicity. We don't know any of that."

And here's another alarming thing that isn't known. Tests show that even the same brand of one of these products may have different drugs -- in different amounts -- at different times.  Since the synthetic cannabinoids are very powerful, even a small increase in dose can have much more powerful side effects.

And since these products are not regulated drugs, there's no way to know how big a dose you're getting.  No drug is safe if you don't know what it is and how much of it you're taking.

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