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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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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...

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.

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.

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