Marijuana Substitute 'Spice' a Growing Concern

-By Charles Desrochers for WNPR, Hartford, CT


UPDATE: Since this story aired, Connecticut lawmakers have moved to ban the substance.


Host: California votes on Proposition 19 today- which if passed would legalize the recreational use of marijuana in that state. Increasingly, teens and college students around the country have found a way around the prohibition by smoking a product called “spice,” a kind of incense whose active ingredient mimics the effects of marijuana. As WNPR’s Charles Desrochers reports, the drug is legal, but it is being banned in some states because of its side effects.


Charles: Months before starting his freshman year at Northern Iowa University, Dave Rozga smoked a brand of ‘spice’ called K2 with his friends. Hours later, he killed himself.

“From any angle you look at it this kid was not depressed, he was not suicidal.”


That’s Dr. Anthony Scalzo, he’s a professor of Toxicology at Saint Louis University.

“He smoked K2 for the first time. He was very agitated and couldn’t be settled. One of his friend’s mothers walked him around outside to cool off. Finally he settled down a little bit and said, ‘I’m tired I want to go home.’ And within an hour shot himself, fatally."

Scalzo says severe depression is one of the rare side effects of “spice” overdose. The incense has become popular in parts of the country with teens, because it’s much more potent than marijuana, cheaper, and legal.

Rozga’s friends told local police in Indianola, Iowa that they had bought the spice he smoked at a mall. It’s found in many places where incense is sold, including at some gas stations. It’s also widely available online and its distribution is hard to regulate. Retailers we contacted would not talk to WNPR for this story.

The reported effect of the incense is like marijuana – but Scalzo says an overdose can have a very different effect on the body.

“The adverse affects start with some apparent anxiety and agitation and a sensation that your heart is going to pop out of your chest. Resting heart rate is typically 70, 80 beats per minute. We’re talking about heart rates going 160, 170 or 180.”

The active ingredient is called JWH-018. It was developed in the 90’s by Dr. John Huffman of Clemson University to study brain receptors. Huffman says he never meant for people to use it.

“We published a long paper in 2005 which is where this came from- in which we included JWH-018 and it turns out it is the easiest one of these compounds to synthesize.”

Huffman says the first people who synthesized his compound sold it in Europe – listed as “plant food.” Now, it’s distributed as incense - dried plant pieces with the compound sprayed on.

It has been banned in parts of Europe, most recently Poland. U.S. Drug Enforcement officials say that they’ve been monitoring spice since 2009. States like Michigan and Oklahoma are considering banning the sale of spice, and that’s already happened in Baltimore County Maryland.

In Indiana, several counties have already stopped the sale of the marijuana substitute, and it’s being considered for a statewide prohibition.

Dr. James Mowry, Director of the Indiana Poison Control Center says they’ve seen 128 cases of spice overdose since March of this year.

“To put that in perspective we’ve probably had at least 2,000 cases of prescription opiates with maybe 20 deaths over that same time period. So 128 cases is a very small number.”

Mowry testified in front of a legislative committee considering a ban on spice. He says it isn’t a cause for concern:

“At this point in time I don’t think that it’s a major problem other than the fact that we have had cases where people have had cases of some type of usually minor adverse reactions from it.”

Connecticut officials say they are aware of the drug but don’t know how widely it is used here. The Director of Connecticut’s Poison Control Center, said that as of today, there have been 14 confirmed cases of spice overdose in the state.


For WNPR, I’m Charles Desrochers.