Spice Use Risks and Concerns

The term spice refers to a wide variety of herbal mixtures that produce effects similar to marijuana (cannabis). They are touted as safe, legal alternatives to pot, but they are also labeled “not for human consumption.” Spice is sold under many names, including K2, fake weed, Yucatan Fire, Skunk, Moon Rocks and others. For several years now, spice mixtures have been readily available in head shops, gas stations and via the Internet.

While some of the side effects reported from spice are fairly mild, others are severe and may include the following:

  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Tremor
  • Seizures
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Cardiac problems
  • Kidney damage
  • Mental illness1

Is Spice Natural?

Labels on spice products often claim that they contain natural psycho-active material taken from a variety of plants. What these products actually contain is dried, shredded plant material and chemical additives that are responsible for their psychoactive (mind-altering) effects. Synthetic marijuana may look like its natural counterpart, but its ingredients are sprayed or soaked with a solution of synthetic chemicals that were originally developed for a host of other purposes from fertilizers to painkillers and cancer treatment.2

Is Spice Legal?

Because the chemicals used in spice have a high potential for abuse and no medical benefit, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) designated the five active chemicals most frequently found in spice as Schedule I controlled substances, making it illegal to sell, buy or possess them. However, this only caused manufacturers to change the chemicals used in production. The DEA continues to monitor the situation and evaluate the need for updating the list of banned cannabinoids.

Easy access, difficult detection and the misperception that spice products are natural, and therefore harmless, have likely contributed to their popularity.Spice products are very popular among young people, ranking second (to marijuana) as the most used illicit drug among high school seniors.

How Is Spice Used?

Some spice products are sold as incense, but they more closely resemble potpourri. Spice is abused mainly by smoking and is sometimes mixed with marijuana. It can also be prepared as an herbal infusion for drinking. The effects for users are reported to be elevated mood, relaxation and altered perception.

Because spice is so new, there is little understanding of its impact on the brain, but we do know that the cannabinoid compounds found in spice products act on the same cell receptors as THC, the primary psychoactive component of marijuana. The reason spice may produce a stronger reaction that marijuana is that some of the compounds found in spice bind more strongly to those receptors, resulting in a more powerful—and unpredictable—effect.


Is Spice Dangerous?

The harmful effects of spice have puzzled scientists for years, but now a group of researchers is reporting progress toward understanding what makes them so toxic. The study describes the development of a method that could someday help physicians diagnose and treat the thousands of young adults and teens who end up in emergency rooms after taking the drug. It also stated that the negative effects of the drug can last for months, and different people metabolized the drug differently.3

The drug, being so unpredictable, poses a significant risk to those who use it. Even after treatment, one 16-year-old user remains blind, partially paralyzed and suffers from severe cognitive impairment.2 In February 2014, the CDC issued an alert describing 16 cases of kidney damage from synthetic marijuana.4 In 2010, there were over 11,400 emergency room visits related to use of synthetic marijuana alone.5 Although it is marketed as natural, the substance still poses a great threat to users.

Finding Help

Are you or a loved one struggling with substance abuse or tempted to experiment with spice? Call us today at our 24-hour, toll-free helpline. We want to help you stay safe and heal from any addiction and mental illness you may be fighting. Please call now.


1 Haiken, Melanie, “‘Spice’ Or Synthetic Marijuana Linked To Psychosis, Brain, and Kidney Damage.” Forbes.com, June 29, 2013.

2 “What are synthetic cannabinoids?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, February 2018.

3 “Understanding the dangers of the fake marijuana called ‘Spice’ or ‘K2’.” Science Daily, October 2, 2013.

4 “Acute Kidney Injury Associated with Synthetic Cannabinoid Use — Multiple States, 2012.” US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, February 15, 2013.

5 “Drug-Related Emergency Department Visits Involving Synthetic Cannabinoids.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, December 4, 2012.

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