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CN BC: This Isn't Your Mother's Spice

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Wannabe weed offers genuine high but the risks are as real as they come

It's not something that you'll be sprinkling on your pasta dinner, and it isn't something that you'll find in the supermarket.

No, you're more likely to find Spice sold in head shops, or available for purchase online, and it's what people are using to get high these days.

Also known as "synthetic marijuana," spice is a product designed to look and feel like the real thing, right down to the feeling that users get after smoking it. Sold under the moniker of an "herbal incense," spice is a mixture of herbs which have been treated with a chemical that mirrors THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

The chemical substance is known as a synthetic cannabinoid, due to its cannabis-like effect.

While there is a wide range of cannabinoids out there, the ones used in products like spice are usually either JWH-018 or CP-47497.

"The plant matter itself isn't really important," said Pete. "What's getting people stoned is the cannabinoid."

"Pete" isn't his real name but an alias used to protect his identity. Pete wishes to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job. He also has a background in chemistry, and has first-hand experience using cannabinoids.

"What's happening is that chemists will take a molecule that will act on the receptor, and they'll just modify them slightly so that they're still active but different, that way they get around the legality issue," said Pete.

According to Philip Laroche of Health Canada, both JWH0-018 and CP-47497 are classified as similar synthetic preparations of cannabis, essentially giving the substances the same illegality as marijuana.

"It is illegal to sell, import, produce, export or possess Spice products that contain these controlled substances in Canada, and offences of this nature are subject to criminal prosecution in Canada," Laroche said in a statement.

And while marijuana may often be overlooked in lieu of harder substances here on the West Coast, the likes of Spice and its cannabinoids don't seem to register on the radar of those tasked to enforce the drug laws.

"I'm not aware of any new emerging street drugs right now and I just consulted with the drug section and they're not aware of anything either," Const. Peter Neily, of the Surrey RCMP, told the Now.

"The only thing that is on the radar from time to time is Doda, but I believe that's something you're already aware of."

Doda is a grey powder derived from the husks of opium poppies.

When asked about the legality behind Spice and its associated cannabinoids, Staff Sgt. Bob Hall of the RCMP Drug and Organized Crime Awareness Service opted to instead focus on the importance of informing the community to stand against drug use.

"K2/Spice is only one of several drugs that produce or present the same issues," said Hall.

"Instead of chasing the drug of the day, the focus of our unit is healthy youth, which in turn works towards healthy and safe communities. This cannot be achieved by laws alone."

'People obviously want to smoke it'

And it's the confusion surrounding Spice that has people drawn to the product, as stores selling the product have it listed as an incense, and, therefore, users believe it to be legal to purchase and use.

"When you go to the website it says not for human consumption and it has 50 comments from people smoking it telling how great it is," says Jay Niver, communications/marketing director of the Alcohol Drug Education Service.

"They may say that it's not for human consumption, but they obviously want people to smoke it."

Asked why people would smoke Spice, Niver said that the perceived legality of Spice likely plays a large role.

"Anything that's legal, people assume it can't be bad for you, because if it were bad then they would make it illegal."

Pete also points out that one of the key reasons people use Spice in lieu of marijuana is drug tests. As drug tests only aim to identify THC, users can still get high by using cannabinoids like those found in Spice, and provide clean test results.

As for the effects of the drug, Pete said that he hasn't tried the particular cannabinoid used in spice, but that he had tried ones similar to it.

"Basically what happens is that you get stoned. It's quite a bit more intense and it lasts longer," described Pete.

And while the effects of Spice may be familiar for those who have smoked marijuana, there is little to no research done on the long-lasting effects of smoking Spice.

"Because it's such a relatively new drug, there's no research on it," explained Niver. "Nobody knows what it can do to you at this point and the early returns, at least in the States, is that there are people going to emergency rooms after smoking this stuff."

Niver said that because Spice is an uncontrolled substance as well as being new on the scene, users are taking even more of a risk because people aren't sure what exactly is in the Spice that they're smoking.

"Alcohol is the most abused substance of all even though it's perfectly legal. But at least you know what you're getting if you buy it at the liquor store; you're getting a controlled substance, and you don't know what you're getting when you try [Spice]."

Pete acknowledges Nivers' sentiments, noting that the ingredients used in the manufacturing of Spice's cannabinoids are difficult to come by, and nearly impossible to make on an individual scale.

"You need a good degree of chemistry because they're quite complex," said Pete. "This isn't like methamphetamines, which is just a simple reaction, and you could pull it off with basic chemistry. Also, the parent product you'd need to buy, which not many people can get. It's not something you can just make yourself."

The source of the cannabinoids also adds to concerns of quality and safety, as they are often produced outside of North America, in conditions where it is unknown what else may be used in the manufacturing process.

"Most of these are synthesized in China. Many of the exotic chemicals in designer drugs are synthesized in China, where they have labs where they're able to work on it without getting troubled by the police or government," said Pete.

Little information on Spice for cops

And while the likes of Spice and K2 have only recently shown up on the North American recreational drug scene, Europe has been dealing with the issue for a few years now. In that time, European countries looked at the increasingly popularity of Spice and K2, and eventually made moves to have the substances banned all across the continent.

Germany, Russia and Sweden have all enacted legislation banning the products, and in the United Kingdom, possession of Spice or similar products now carries a maximum five-year prison sentence.

On the North American front, Kansas is the only state in the U.S. to ban the substance, and several more states are looking to do the same.

Here in Canada, Spice is still available for purchase in head shops and online, and while Health Canada has identified the substances used in Spice as falling under the same branch of the law as marijuana, vendors and buyers seem to think otherwise, or just don't care.

But even if the active ingredients in Spice are already considered illegal, there is still very little information available to enforcement officers on what exactly to look for, something Laroche says Health Canada is working to improve.

"Health Canada is currently working with its federal partners to develop information about these products for use by the public and law enforcement and border service officers," said Laroche.

"Law enforcement can take action if they suspect illegal activity."

And while the crackdown on Spice hasn't come yet, Pete says that when it does, it most likely won't make a difference to the recreational drug scene. He says that someone will simply come up with different ways of getting the same results.

"With synthetic drugs you just change the chemical structure a little bit and sometimes it will make it inactive, and sometimes it will continue being active or slightly different, and so you can continue to use it. There's always the possibility of synthesizing a few ( more ) of them."

Source: CN BC: This Isn't Your Mother's Spice
 
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