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What cops need to know about ‘spice’

As these drugs become more popular, it is imperative that officers arm themselves with knowledge of the signs and symptoms of influence

Most cops have heard the term ‘spice’ by now — slang for a group of drugs that are synthetic cannabinoids. The drug is made up 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.

Suppliers of the drug will order synthetic cannabinoid compounds in powder form from labs overseas, such as China. They also purchase acetone, which most suppliers will get from a retailer such as Home Depot. If suppliers cannot find acetone, they use ethyl alcohol or rubbing alcohol as an alternative.

Using a specific recipe, the supplier will mix these ingredients, then spray them on Damiana (or similar) leaves. The supplier then packages the spice in whatever delivery method they desire, most typically in press-lock foil bags, which are often sold in liquor stores and gas stations.

There are hundreds of different compounds under names such as JWH-018, AM-2201, or HU-210. These names will tell you where the chemicals originated. As an example, compounds starting with JWH were developed by John W. Huffman from Clemson University and subsequently named after him.

Putting the drug together does not require a laboratory. It can be made just about anywhere, from a garage floor to a storage locker.

Under the Influence of spice

When a user gets high on the drug, they are taking a substance 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 the drug a user will ingest.

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

Who are the Users of spice?

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 the 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 could include the belief that it is all-natural and is a “legal high,” even though it is a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Spice is marketed to kids in brightly colored foil bags that have characters and logos that are attractive to our youth.

A segment of society is now using spice to circumvent drug testing. Individuals who are mandated to take a drug test, such as truck drivers and those in safety-sensitive jobs, as well as those who 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 you encounter a person under the influence, understand they are not perceiving the world as you are, and use good officer safety principles (such as contact/cover and speaking in a calming voice) during your interaction. 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 all right may help as well.

If you contact a user who 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, 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.”

Marcus continued, “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.”

Keith is a retired Police Sergeant who worked in the San Francisco Bay Area for 29 years. He 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). 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 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 is the Founder and President of Graves & Associates, a company dedicated to providing drug training to law enforcement and private industry. Keith is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.