Written by Laura Davies
In 2011, 22-year old Anthony Norton visited a shop, bought a packet of a “legal high” and smoked it. Shortly after, he went to a gas station, demanded sexual acts from three women, got into a car with a woman and her 11-year-old daughter, and exposed himself to a woman and her 7-year-old child. He was arrested and charged with solicitation of sodomy and cruelty to children. He doesn’t remember any of it.
“I’m totally sorry. I don’t know what I did. But I’ve heard what I did, and I would take it back if I could.” He claimed, “Since I heard it was legal, I thought it was okay, Marijuana is illegal and this is legal. I thought, no biggie. It can’t harm you. I won’t do anything stupid.”
The substance he used was Spice, a synthetic cannabinoid that’s been destroying lives and communities and has killed thousands. At the time Anthony took it, it was completely legal and could be picked up for $10 a bag.
The Invention of Spice
The commonly held belief is that the synthetic cannabinoids found in Spice can be traced back to a sole inventor, John W Huffman, and he’s suffered for it. His role in the story began in 1995 when he was working as a professor at Clemson University in South Carolina.
Biochemists had recently discovered cannabinoid receptors. The parts of the body that not only allow humans to get high from weed but also have an involvement in pain, sleep, and appetite. They knew they could be triggered by the THC found in cannabis but not much else. Figuring out the details of how they worked had the potential for an untold number of breakthroughs in medical treatments and therapies.
Using real cannabis in research, however, was difficult. Legal restrictions made it hard to obtain and it triggered both the CB1 and CB2 receptors simultaneously, which wasn’t ideal. Having a new, freely available compound that could bind selectively to either receptor would be an incredible asset for research. John Huffman heard about the problem and thought this sounded like a fantastic puzzle to solve
In the decade that followed, Huffman and his team created over 300 new compounds and, in 1995, published their findings and, crucially, their formulas online. He never tested any of them on humans, didn’t examine their toxicity, and certainly had no aspirations to become the father of a synthetic drug epidemic. So, it came as a horrible surprise when, in 2008, he received a message from a blogger in Germany informing him that JWH-018, the 18th compound he’d synthesised, had been found in Spice.
This horrible discovery led to over a decade of interview requests, angry emails, and heart-breaking phone calls from family members whose loved ones had been taken by the drug. Huffman was pestered until retirement, when he eventually managed to find some peace by living a remote and quiet life. Some thanks for years of research he’d hoped would lead to treatments for HIV, AIDS and multiple sclerosis, and pain relief for chemotherapy.
What is less well reported is that those first batches of Spice contained more than one synthetic cannabinoid. One of which was invented in 1979, 16 years before JWH-018, whose inventors should really have shouldered some of the blame. Unfortunately for Huffman, those shoulders belonged to one of the world’s largest and most powerful pharmaceutical companies, Pfizer, who had a better PR team than a lone professor.
Pfizer’s CP-47,497 was first published in a 1982 paper entitled “Cannabimetic Activity from CP-47,497, a derivative of 3-phenylcyclohexanol.” In the abstract, the authors claimed the compound was closely related to THC but with 3 to 28 times greater potency. They even went so far as to declare it was capable of producing many of the effects of THC. Who could’ve ever predicted that anyone would want to exploit it for recreational purposes?
Now I know what you’re thinking. Why should any of the scientists be shouldering the blame? It’s not as if the formulas for synthetic cannabinoids are the only ones to have been posted online. Pretty much every drug ever invented can be found with a quick Google and our streets haven’t been flooded with cheap antivirals or insulin.
The key difference is that synthetic cannabinoids are just so easy to make. So, when Huffman found that one of his compounds helped non-melanoma skin cancer and brain tumours in mice, he decided to publish the manufacturing instructions to make it easier for others to continue the research. Instructions so simple that he claimed they could be followed by a “halfway decent undergraduate chemistry major in three steps using commercially available materials.”
Unfortunately, as Breaking Bad hadn’t been filmed yet, it didn’t occur to him that anyone would be stupid enough to try and make it, never mind smoke it. Aside from the fact that no one knew whether or not the compounds were toxic or carcinogenic, history was fairly clear on the perils of making and taking your own drugs. In 1976, chemistry student, Barry Kidston decided to try his hand at synthetic drug design and created 1-methyl-4-phenyl-4-propionoxypiperidine (MPPP), more catchily known as “new heroin”. Unfortunately, as he refined his process, he removed some steps and accidentally made a different substance that gave him early-onset Parkinson’s.
Of course, risks like brain damage and death don’t mean much to a drug baron who has the potential to earn $500,000 per kilo of cheaply made Spice and has no intention of taking it themselves. Plus, as the drug was brand new, there was no legislation. Making and selling it was completely legal. With a bit of clever branding, it could be distributed and sold in petrol stations, corner shops, and “headshops” worldwide.
Spice is now illegally available in many forms, as a powder, vape fluid, and even in sweets. But, the first and most popular version was that most closely resembling marijuana. A small square packet of a green, crumbly plant material that could be sprinkled into a spliff and smoked. This was a clever marketing tactic that worked in two ways.
Firstly, customers were much more likely to try it if they viewed it as a nice, natural alternative to illegal cannabis, rather than a sinister chemical powder made in a lab. Secondly, it could fly under the noses of authorities with Harry Potter style ingredients lists consisting of mugwort, blue lotus, dwarf skull cap, and Indian warrior. Manufacturers would often chuck a few labels like “incense,” “potpourri,” and “‘not for human consumption,” on there for good measure. To the uninitiated officer, Spice was just some herbal hippie concoction stoners would burn to look cool. Essentially a rebranding of the baggy of oregano, teenagers are often conned into buying and smoking.
What wasn’t included on the label, though, was the synthetic cannabinoid compound that was actually getting people high. What the Spice makers were doing was buying huge quantities of random plant material online and spraying them with synthetic cannabis. The plant itself didn’t matter and was rarely ever anything as exotic as blue lotus.
The Spice High
With all this talk of synthetic cannabis, spliffs and similarities to THC, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Spice’s high would be similar to weeds’. However, while THC only partially activates the cannabinoid receptors in the brain, Spice activates them fully. Not only does this make the synthetic version more potent, but it varies the effects.
Cannabis also contains the compound cannabidiol, otherwise known as CBD. This stops the release of the chemical messengers released by the action of THC. Synthetic cannabis doesn’t contain this, so there’s nothing to keep things under control.
At a low dose, users can find the traditional happy, relaxed, munchie craving high THC normally delivers. At a higher dose, paranoia, rage, vomiting, memory loss, and seizures are common. Severe side effects include tachycardia, bradycardia, acute kidney damage, psychotic episodes, and death. No one has ever died from a cannabis overdose. Thousands have died from Spice.
By far the most famous side effect is the complete loss of body control and consciousness that sends users into a zombie-like state. As the drug spread through the US and UK, thousands of images and videos were posted online of people shuffling around or frozen in contorted positions, completely unresponsive. What‘s most shocking, though, is that these are captured by so-called zombie hunters in broad daylight, with shoppers and children walking by. One couple was even filmed having sex in the middle of a public park, completely oblivious to the families around them.
Synthetic cannabis is also much more addictive than its natural namesake. One hit will put the user in a state of oblivion, known as “gouging out,” for hours. But, as soon as they come round, the craving strikes and they’ll do it all again. One homeless charity worker in Manchester, UK, reported witnessing a man go into cardiac arrest. He was resuscitated and back to smoking the same Spice that had almost killed him just three hours later. It gets to the point where Spice addicts can’t eat or sleep without the drug. If they pass out, their bodies will wake them every 3 hours for another fix. Days can go by, hopping from one high to the next with no idea how much time has passed.
How Spice Ruins Lives
Losing entire weeks without eating, sleeping or being aware of where you’re defecating is not something that would appeal to your average recreational user, but it’s exactly what the homeless and prison populations wanted.
Spice made it into correctional facilities first as it was legal, and therefore easy to obtain, had no odour, and couldn’t be detected by drug tests. People were even getting deliberately arrested for crimes with short sentences so that they could smuggle it in. Once Spice addicted inmates were released, they took it to the streets and it spread through rough sleeping communities like wildfire.
The problem was made worse by just how cheap and readily available it was. When Spice first hit the market, a £10 packet could keep you high for a week and a Spice laced spliff could be bought for as little as 50p. This kind of money was easy to find by begging or shoplifting, so people were able to keep themselves perpetually high, day and night. It’s estimated that 70% of Cardiff’s homeless community and 95% of Manchester’s use the synthetic drug.
Addicted inmates had it harder as, once they were hooked, dealers on the inside could demand anything they wanted in return for a packet. Addicts would consent to having their heads shaved, washed in the toilet, and would drink urine in return for a high. Footage taken inside Hindley Prison, UK, showed one inmate eating a sandwich containing human faeces in exchange for Spice.
Trying to get off the drug results in withdrawal symptoms similar to and sometimes worse than coming off crack or heroin. Vomiting, seizures, psychosis, and terrifying hallucinations have all been reported. This is what keeps people coming back, despite the fact that the next spliff could be the one that kills them.
Lack of standards and regulations means it’s easy to overdose. The chemicals are often applied with cheap hand sprayers meaning the potency of each packet varies and batches often include “hotspots” which have received too much. In 2017, Manchester saw a wave of Spice with a 10 fold increase in potency suddenly flood onto the streets. This was most likely caused by someone missing a decimal point when following the recipe.
Occasionally, undesirable extras are added to the mix, either as a way of stretching the chemical or to extend the high. In 2018, rat poison was added to a batch that ended up in Illinois. Over 150 people began bleeding uncontrollably, and several died.
The War on Spice
Controlling synthetic drugs was a huge problem in the countries affected. Officials knew something had to be done, deaths were rising every year and city centres were transforming into scenes from the Walking Dead. The issue gained even greater prominence in the US after an American teenager, David Rozga, shot himself with his family’s hunting rifle. Initially thought to be a suicide, his friends later admitted that David had smoked the synthetic drug, K2, an hour before the incident. In response, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley introduced the David Mitchell Rozga Act and President Barack Obama signed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act in 2012.
The UK tried amending its Misuse of Drugs Act in 2009 and again in 2013 to classify the synthetic compounds as class B drugs, illegal to possess, manufacture, or sell. The problem was, every time they reclassified one compound, manufacturers had another one ready to go. Only a slight adjustment to the chemical was needed to evade the law.
Finally, in 2016, the UK cracked the legislation aspect with the Psychoactive Substances Act, which made the production, distribution, sale, and possession within correctional facilities of any psychoactive substance illegal. This meant it was no longer available over the counter and headshops had to take it off the shelves. Multiple other countries followed suit with their own laws.
Legislation, however, is rarely enough to control drug use, as demonstrated by the 33 person New York ‘zombie outbreak’ of 2016, 4 years after the Prevention Act. All legislation did was push Spice into the black market. Prices have more than doubled to £25 a packet and dealers are making £1,500 off £50 worth of the substance, which can be bought in bulk online from China and India.
Those who were addicted are still addicted. The legislation just means they have to beg more or eat less to afford the same amount of Spice they were using before. They also face additional risks. Pre-ban users could visit a high street shop, they now face dealers, muggings and sexual exploitation. Some cities have reported a rise in the use of children as drug mules. Delivering Spice on push bikes to the homeless.
What the answer is, remains unclear. Spice is destroying lives and costing governments millions in police and paramedic call-outs, but how do you stop it? Some call for greater police presence, maximum penalties for drug possession and supply, on-the-spot Spice tests, and stricter import checks. Others, however, say decriminalisation is the answer. After all, the Netherlands legalised cannabis and has never had a Spice problem. Either way, someone should probably do something to stop people defecating in phone boxes and getting high in front of kids.
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