Law Enforcement Guide to the Drug Spice

What is Spice

Spice is a slang term that defines a group of drugs called synthetic cannabinoids. Essentially, spice is a group of synthetic compounds chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. These chemicals are sprayed onto a mixture of herbs and spices, like Damiana leaves, and then smoked much like marijuana is smoked.

So where do these chemicals come from and how is spice made? Suppliers of the drug will order synthetic cannabinoid compounds from labs oversees, such as China. When their package arrives, it comes to them in a powder form. They will also need acetone, which most suppliers will get from a retailer such as Home Depot. Suppliers could also use ethyl alcohol or rubbing alcohol if they can’t find acetone. Using a specific recipe, the supplier will mix the acetone with the newly acquired chemical and spray it with damiana (or similar) leaves. The supplier will package the spice in whatever packaging they desire. It will usually be a press lock foil bag, which will be sold in liquor stores and gas stations. When the drug is put together by the supplier, it is not done in a laboratory setting. Rather, it is put together anywhere including on a garage floor on a tarp or in a storage locker.

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There are literally hundreds of different compounds. Many of these chemicals have names like JWH-018, HU-210 or AM-2201. These names will tell you where these chemicals originated. As an example, compounds starting with JWH were developed by John W. Huffman from Clemson University and subsequently named after him. AM signifies that the compound was named for Northeastern University professor Alexandros Makriyannis. HU compounds were developed at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Under the Influence of Spice

When a spice user gets high on their product, they are taking a cannabinoid like drug that has been reported to be anywhere from 100 to 800 times more potent than THC. John W. Huffman, who developed the first known spice compounds, told Live Science ( that it is 10 times more active than THC. Users will experience a rapid heart rate, muscle stiffness, muscle spasms and high blood pressure. Some users may experience nausea and vomiting. It would be a misnomer to compare spice to marijuana, however. Users can also experience hallucinations, image distortion, severe mood disorders and amnesia. These types of symptoms are seen more often with drugs like Dissociative Anesthetics (PCP, Ketamine, DXM), not Cannabis. The reason we see these extremes with spice is because of the potency of the compounds and the amount of spice a user will ingest.

John W. Huffman once said in an interview that anyone that uses synthetic cannabinoids is a “potential Darwin Award Winner” (a witty way of saying that someone removes themselves from the human race). The drug has been shown in studies to be addictive, with users suffering withdrawal symptoms if they stop regular use of the drug. Withdrawal symptoms can include suicidal ideation, psychotic episodes, inability to care about consequences, inability to sleep and depression.

Who are the Users?

Spice is very popular among our youth, especially among boys. The 2014 Monitoring the Future Survey showed that 1 in 20 high school students had used a synthetic cannabinoid. Overall, spice was the third most abused drug by our youth. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has said some of the contributing factors for the increased use by our youth could include the belief that it is all natural and the perception that it is a “legal high” (even though it is a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act). Spice is also marketed to kids in brightly colored foil bags that have characters and logos that are attractive to our youth.

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There is also a new segment of society that is using spice to avoid drug testing. Those that are mandated to take a drug test, such as truck drivers and those in safety sensitive jobs, as well as those that are subjected to court mandated drug testing, are switching to Spice. Their desire to be high has led them to this drug which is rarely tested by those mandating the drug test. Officer Nick Albert, an experienced Narcotics Detective in the San Francisco Bay Area, said, “We are now finding parolees and probationers doing spice in order to avoid testing positive on their drug tests.”

The Outlook for Law Enforcement

Officers will continue to encounter persons under the influence of synthetic cannabinoids. As these drugs become more popular, it is imperative that officers arm themselves with knowledge of the signs and symptoms of influence. They can do this formally by taking courses such as the California Narcotic Officers Association’s Drug Abuse Recognition Course or informally by gaining experience by contacting regular users of the drug and debriefing them.

If an officer encounters a person under the influence, understand they are not perceiving the world as you and I are and you should use good officer safety principles (such as contact/cover and speaking in a calming voice). A good idea is to reduce the stimuli around them. This will ensure that loud sounds, bright lights, or nearby agitators don’t set them off. Reassuring them that they will be alright may help as well. If you contact a user that is driving, a Drug Recognition Expert should handle the drug evaluation. If no DRE is available, use the training that you have to complete the investigation and take a blood sample. You should request the lab test for synthetic cannabinoids.

During an interview with CBS on May 8, 2015, Dr. Steven Marcus, executive director of the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System at the New Jersey Medical School said, “This is the worst outbreak of drug abuse that I’ve lived through.” Continuing, Dr. Marcus said, “It’s almost as if someone had made a witches’ brew of these cannabinoids. This is not just powerful marijuana. This is really dangerous stuff that has effects that can be life-threatening.”

Check out a good video of a person under the influence here:

Author: Keith Graves
Keith is a retired Police Sergeant and worked in the San Francisco Bay Area for 29 years. Keith was named as California’s Narcotics Officer of the Year and is a prior winner of MADD’s California Hero Award. He has years of experience as a Narcotics Detective and a Narcotics Unit Supervisor and is a Drug Recognition Expert Instructor (IACP #3292). Keith teaches both the DRE course and the Drug Abuse Recognition Course and has taught at the Police Academy. He has developed several drug courses for the California Narcotics Officers Association, California POST and California Colleges and currently consults POST on drug investigation procedures. Keith has held other assignments besides narcotics including Training Sergeant, Patrol Sergeant, COPPS Officer, Traffic Officer, and 20 years as a SWAT Team member and Sniper Team Leader. Keith has taught thousands of officers and businesses around the world about drug use, drug trends, compliance training and drug investigations. He is recognized as an international drug expert and has testified as an expert in court proceedings on drug cases, homicide cases and rape prosecutions. Keith earned a BA in Business Management from Saint Mary's College of California and a MA in Criminal Justice. Keith is the Founder and President of Graves & Associates, a company dedicated to providing drug training to law enforcement and private industry.

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