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Where to Find Spice Addiction Support and Treatment Programs
Synthetic cannabinoids (sometimes referred to as “fake weed” or sold under “brand” names like “Spice” or “K2”) are a group of chemically similar, mind-altering substances marketed as marijuana alternatives. The primary psychoactive components of these drugs molecularly resemble those found in marijuana; however, the comparison to marijuana can falsely lead people to believe the intoxicating effects will be the same when, in fact, they are much more unpredictable and dangerous.2
Synthetic weed may be viewed as a safe drug because of marketing that identifies it as “natural,” when, in reality, it is anything but safe or natural.3
What Is Spice?
Spice is a popular brand name for synthetic marijuana, chemicals that are either sprayed on dried plant leaves that resemble potpourri (to be smoked) or sold in liquid form (to be vaporized and smoked via an electronic cigarette).2 Less commonly, sprayed plant leaves are mixed with marijuana or brewed as a tea.2
Unlike marijuana, these products have no medical use, and the U.S. has recently made it illegal to sell, buy, or own some of the chemicals used in making them. However, manufacturers will consistently alter their chemical formulations to skirt legal restrictions and get the product back on the market.2 While in the past, the most common brand names in the U.S. were Spice and K2, there are now hundreds other names/brands it is sold under, including:2,4,5
- Black Mamba.
- Herbal Dream.
- Moon Rocks.
- Red Magic.
- Yucatan Fire.
It is extremely difficult for buyers to know exactly what chemicals are in these products or how their bodies will react to them. These products are usually sold in metal-foil sachets, containing resin, dried flowers, or leaves soaked in the illegal chemical and can be purchased with relative ease on the internet.5 Packages of synthetic weed are typically labeled ‘not for human consumption’ or ‘for aromatherapy only’.5 The label may also state that the product is purely herbal or contains only plant ingredients and may list only plants that don’t have any mind-altering effects.5 Packaging can be difficult to identify as a drug by non-users, due to its brightly colored images, attractive scents, and intentionally misleading labels.5
It is extremely difficult for buyers to know exactly what chemicals are in these products or how their bodies will react to them.
Effects of Spice vs. Marijuana
Users may think products like Spice are safe since they are labeled as an alternative to marijuana and presented as “natural.” The fact is, synthetic weed may affect the body in a much more pronounced way (both in the desired high and in the frightening negative consequences) than marijuana.5 Moreover, because the chemical formulations change regularly, the user can’t foresee the exact effects they will endure.2
Using Spice or any other synthetic marijuana is always risky and may lead to a host of effects that diverge from those commonly associated with use of natural marijuana.2 While intoxicated, users might experience:2,5-7
- Improved mood.
- Altered perception.
- Extreme agitation.
- Symptoms of psychosis, including extreme anxiety, paranoia, a sense of detachment from reality, and hallucinations.
- Suicidal ideation.
- Aggression and violence.
- Rapid heart rate.
- Stiffness in legs.
- Hypokalemia, or low potassium levels.
- Irregular heart rhythm.
- Epileptic seizures.
While the intoxicating effects of marijuana are well understood, those of fake weed can be wildly unpredictable. In some cases, taking Spice can even be deadly.4
Is It Possible to Overdose?
Overdose is a serious possible consequence of synthetic weed use.6 Users may experience side effects severe enough that they require emergent medical treatment. In 2010, 11,406 emergency room visits were the result of synthetic marijuana use, with 75% of these visits involving adolescents and young adults between the ages of 12 and 29.3
As a person uses more of this drug, they may notice that the normal dose does not provide the desired effect anymore. This is an indication of a growing tolerance. To combat this problem, they may increase the amount and frequency of use to get the high they’re seeking, which in turn, increases the risk of overdose.
Chronic use of these drugs, as well as overdose, may be associated with:6
- Extreme sleepiness.
- Loss of consciousness.
- Severe hypertension (high blood pressure).
- Dangerously rapid heart rate.
- Chest pain.
- Heart attack.
Lasting Effects of Using Synthetic Marijuana
Most effects of synthetic weed products begin in just a matter of minutes and last up to 6 hours.7 Rarely, psychotic symptoms can persist for weeks to months.7 One report discusses a case-series that looked at 10 patients who suffered first-time psychotic episodes after ingesting synthetic cannabinoids. It found that 7 patients’ symptoms resolved after 5-8 days, while the other 3 suffered symptoms lasting more than 5 months. While individuals with underlying mental health conditions may be more at-risk for psychotic episodes, it seems that even individuals with no history of mental illness are also at risk.
The severe and potentially long-lasting effects of synthetic weed can include:7
Psychotic symptoms can persist for weeks to months.
- Visual hallucinations.
- Auditory hallucinations.
- Thought disorders.
- Suicidal thoughts.
- Flat affect (decreased emotional expressions).
- Thought blocking (prolonged periods of silence when the user attempts to speak).
- Disorganized speech.
- Complete lack of speech.
So much is unknown about Spice’s long-term effects on the body because its use is a relatively recent phenomenon; however, one concern is that it can be toxic to the body and brain because of the possible inclusion of certain heavy metal residues in the formulations,4 which could be linked to the development of numerous diseases.
Can You Get Addicted to It?
Yes, synthetic marijuana products can be addictive.2 With increased use, a person can become dependent on the drug, needing it simply to feel good enough to function. Dependence is separate from but closely tied to addiction, which is the compulsive use of a drug that continues even as it causes harm to the user’s life.
Cravings for Spice, the promise of the high that is increasingly difficult to get due to a building tolerance, and the avoidance of withdrawal can keep people using even past the point that it is no longer fun.
A dependent person who tries to quit may experience symptoms of withdrawal that could include: 2,5
- Cravings for Spice.
- Stomach upset with diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
- Heart palpitations.
- Increased sweating.
- High blood pressure.
- Loss of appetite and resultant weight loss.
- Difficulty falling and staying asleep.
Symptoms of withdrawal appear to be somewhat similar to but more intense than typical cannabis withdrawal, which usually begins approximately 24 hours after the last use and peaks at about 2-3 days after cessation.5
Getting Help for Spice Addiction
While there is no specifically designed and tested treatment for synthetic marijuana addiction, standard substance abuse addiction treatment interventions may be helpful.
The main goal of early treatment is to manage acute withdrawal symptoms.7 This may include the administration of medications to treat anxiety, agitation, and seizures.7 Getting help in a medical detox program where your symptoms can be closely watched and addressed by professionals can help to keep you safe and lower your risk of relapse.
Long-term treatment should focus on understanding the reason behind the abuse of the drug and how to avoid future use. Options for treatment after the detox period include:
- Inpatient Treatment: Here, the user will live at the treatment facility for a specified period of time typically ranging from 30-90 days (potentially longer, if needed). Inpatient treatment facilities will offer individual and group counseling sessions. Features and amenities may include nutritional counseling, exercise programs, and skills training.
- Outpatient Treatment: Outpatient treatment is generally considered less intensive than inpatient treatment. This type of treatment is appropriate for users with less severe addictions who have access to a support network. Instead of living at a treatment facility, the user will live at home and continue with daily work or school duties. They will be expected to visit the outpatient treatment facility a few times each week for a couple of hours. The user may participate in individual counseling as well as group counseling, which can include a variety of treatment methods, including cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. This type of therapy supposes that drug abuse is a learned behavior, and those participating in CBT are taught healthy alternative behaviors to substance use.8
- Partial Hospitalization: The user continues to live at home but attends outpatient treatment in a hospital-like setting. This type of treatment generally requires the user to visit the hospital on an almost daily basis for several hours each day. This type of treatment is appropriate for those with a more serious addiction who are unable to participate in inpatient treatment.
- Intensive Outpatient Programs: This type of care can provide many of the same services as inpatient treatment and involves the recovering individual attending intensive therapy sessions several times for up to 9 hours per week (depending on the individual’s needs).8
- Counseling: Counseling is the practice of trained professionals working individually or in groups with the user.9 This therapeutic relationship may help the user to understand the cause behind the abuse and develop strategies to prevent relapse.
- 12-Step Programs: 12-Step programs are community-based programs that utilize 12 steps as the foundation for freeing oneself from the disease of addiction.9 These groups build community and support systems among other recovering individuals. Popular 12-step programs include Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). Alternatives to 12-step programs include recovery groups like SMART Recovery and Secular Organizations for Sobriety.
Seeking treatment for yourself or a loved one who is struggling with synthetic marijuana abuse or addiction may be necessary. Spice and other synthetic weed products are addictive and dangerous. You don’t have to go through this alone. If you’re ready to get help, you can choose from numerous options that can get you started on your personal journey of recovery.
- Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. American Psychiatric Association.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Synthetic cannabinoids. 2015;(November):1-4.
- Monitoring the Future. (2012) Synthetic Marijuana.
- Spice K. Drug Fact Sheet. Fed Regist. 2011.
- Zawilska JB, Wojcieszak J. Spice/K2 drugs – more than innocent substitutes for marijuana. Int J Neuropsychopharmacol. 2014;17(3):509-525.
- Heath TS, Burroughs Z, Thompson J, Tecklenburg FW. Acute Intoxication Caused by a Synthetic Cannabinoid in Two Adolescents. J Pediatr Pharmacol Ther. 2012;17(2):177-181. doi:10.5863/1551-6776-17.2.177.
- Roberto AJ, Lorenzo A, Li KJ, et al. First-Episode of Synthetic Cannabinoid-Induced Psychosis in a Young Adult, Successfully Managed with Hospitalization and Risperidone. Case Rep Psychiatry. 2016;2016:1-4.
- Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Substance Abuse: Clinical Issues in Intensive Outpatient Treatment. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2006. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 47.) Chapter 3. Intensive Outpatient Treatment and the Continuum of Care.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. TIP 34: Brief Interventions and Brief Therapies for Substance Abuse. Interv Br Ther Subst Abus. 2012:105-121.