Taking Spice is like ‘playing Russian roulette with chemicals’

A scientist in a laboratory.
A scientist in a laboratory.

Following the hospitalisation of five students from Lancaster University after taking the drug Spice, reporter Michelle Blade spoke to toxicology manager Dr Mark Piper at Randox Testing Services all about it from a scientific point of view.

1) What effect does Spice have on the human body?

Spice is a collective term for chemicals often referred to as synthetic cannabinoids (synthetic cannabis). Although not related to the cannabis drug, spice chemicals act upon the same nerve receptors in the brain and immune system as cannabis (CB1 and CB2). This can result in a number of physiological and psychological effects including sickness, increased heart rate, potential hallucinations, mood and memory changes and extending to potential kidney failure, seizures or death. One of the dangers of these chemicals is the variation in the strength of the materials people are taking. This can result in a mild effect after taking one batch, but a more adverse reaction from the next. Effects vary from person to person and batch to batch, so it is like playing Russian roulette with these chemicals. The long term effects are also not fully understood. These could extend to schizophrenia or long-term psychosis as well as potential major organ failure.

2) Has Spice been analysed by scientists and determined not to be suitable for human consumption?

Spice has no place in pharmaceuticals as its manufacture is not a regulated industry. The production of these chemicals are not carried out in sterile laboratories where medicines and therapeutic drugs are manufactured. Unclean, uncontrolled and unregulated backroom chemistry laboratories are used to make these materials without any degree of quality control or regard for human health.

Users of these materials simply have no idea what they are taking as the chemical has been sprayed onto plant material which users then smoke like cannabis. More recently Spice drugs have been made available in liquid form for use in e-cigarettes, again without control of what other chemicals are being ingested by the user.

Many spice drugs are controlled in the UK under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971), so it is illegal to be in possession of them. Legislation is continuing to control more of these chemicals with a view to eradicate them altogether.

3) What kind of research has been done into the cannabis substitute?

Synthetic cannabinoids were first developed for use as potential medicinal therapeutic drugs to fight brain tumours, non-melanoma skin cancers and for use in pain management. It proved difficult to separate the desired effects from the unwanted psychoactive effects however. The majority of recent medical research has been concentrated on developing materials which do not pass through the blood-brain barrier so psychoactive effects are minimised. Such substances would be more marketable as a pharmaceutical drug.

4) Can you become

addicted to Spice in the same way as cannabis?

Spice can be highly addictive due to the effects the chemicals can have on the user. Online groups specifically for spice addiction are widespread demonstrating that this is a significant potential consequence resulting from using these chemicals. The substances are readily available and relatively cheap with considerable addictive characteristics.

5) Can Spice be used as a painkiller?

Spice drugs have no proven therapeutic effects. Early scientific studies were conducted to assess the use of these chemicals for pharmaceutical use, but negative side effects proved too extensive. The potential for overdose of these chemicals is also a significant possibility.

6) Can Spice react with any other medications to cause even worse effect?

Spice chemicals remain a group of compounds which haven’t been fully investigated for human use. As a consequence, full medical trials have not been conducted so drug interactions have not been assessed. As there is always the potential that interactions may occur between safe and well documented medications and these un-regulated, un-controlled materials, it is best to keep clear of these compounds as use could lead to serious health consequences.

Randox Testing Services based in Manchester offers UK, Ireland and Europe

wide drug and alcohol testing solutions.