If you’ve been watching the news or reading the paper lately, you may have heard about a legal marijuana substitute known by names such as K2, space, spice, magic potpourri, and the like. The name K2 is presumed to be named after the real K2, a mountain in the Karakoram Range, that is the second highest peak on earth after Mt Everest.
Basically these products contain synthetic chemicals that are similar to THC (tetrahydrocannibinol) which is the active chemical in marijuana or Cannabis. The most widely used chemical in these products is known as JWH-018, which was discovered by Dr John W Huffman, an organic chemist researching cannabinoid receptors at Clemson University. THC’s medicinal usefulness is not lost on scientists, and research is ongoing, with the hope of finding a similar chemical that will produce the analgesic, anti-nausea effects of marijuana but without the euphoric effects responsible for its legal status and overall stigma. There are 2 cannibinoid receptors in the body: CB1 and CB2.
CB1 is responsible for the ‘high’: euphoria, altered space-time perception, and alteration of visual, auditory and olfactory senses. These synthetic cannabinoids in K2/Spice bind to the CB1 receptor with a 3-4 fold higher affinity than THC, which likely explains its increased side effects such as agitation, anxiety, high blood pressure and increased heart rate.
The products are sold as ‘herbal’ even though the chemical is synthetic and is sprayed on random herbs (likely to keep in step with the marijuana culture). The products are sold in stores and online as incense/potpourri or as a smokable product. Labels may feature psychedelic art and claim to be herbal or a natural high. Concerns with K2/Spice (in addition to the aforementioned increased adverse effects) are that these particular chemicals have never been studied in humans (unlike marijuana, which has) so both short and long term medical effects are unknown. Other issues have to do with the production of the product, since it is completely unregulated:
- Buyers have no way of knowing which exact chemical or in what concentration the herbs are sprayed with. There may be tremendous variability from batch to batch with regards to potency.
- Unknown purity of the synthetic compound; there could be unknown toxic elements in the final product due to the manufacturing process.
- The product and chemical make-up of the synthetic solution can change from manufacturer to manufacturer. Some may not even put the correct ‘active ingredient’ in it.
Even though K2 causes more side effects than smoking marijuana, there are two big reasons it is a big seller: it is technically legal in many states including Illinois, and there is no blood or urine test to screen for it. There have been successful efforts to ban it in some European countries and states in the US. If you have any questions about exposure to K2/Spice or any other drug, call 1-800-222-1222 for free confidential medical advice.