NIDA for Teens: The Science Behind Drug Abuse
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What Is Spice?

K2, a popular brand of "Spice" mixture.

Spice is a mix of herbs (shredded plant material) and manmade chemicals with mind-altering effects. It is often called "synthetic marijuana" because some of the chemicals in it are similar to ones in marijuana; but in fact, its effects are sometimes very different from marijuana, and frequently much stronger.

Labeled "Not for Human Consumption" and disguised as incense, Spice has been available for purchase in head shops (stores that sell drug products), gas stations, and online.  A couple years ago, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) made it against the law to sell, buy, or possess Spice, but people who make these products work to avoid these laws by using different chemicals in their mixtures. The DEA monitors the situation and whether or not to ban more chemicals, as needed.

For the most recent statistics on teen drug abuse, see results from NIDA’s Monitoring the Future study.

What Are the Common Street Names for Spice?

There are many slang words for Spice. "K2" is one of the most common. It is also called "fake weed," "Bliss," "Black Mamba," "Bombay Blue," "Genie," "Zohai," "Yucatan Fire," "Skunk," and "Moon Rocks".

How Many Teens Abuse Spice?

Spice is the second most popular illegal drug used by high school seniors, with marijuana being the first. Easy access and the misunderstanding that Spice is "natural" and safe have likely contributed to these high use rates.

Past-Year Use of Illicit Drugs by High School Seniors (percent)

2013 High School Seniors surveyed reported using the following illicit drugs: marijuana or hashish (36.4%), spice or synthetic marijuana (7.9%), hallucinogens (4.5%), MDMA or Ecstasy (4%), Salvia (3.4%), and Cocaine (2.6%).

Source: University of Michigan, 2013 Monitoring the Future Study
Text alternative for Past-Year Use of Illicit Drugs graph


How Is Spice Used?

Most people smoke Spice by rolling it in papers (like with marijuana or handmade tobacco cigarettes); sometimes, it is mixed with marijuana. Some users also make it as an herbal tea for drinking.

How Does Spice Affect the Brain?

Some Spice users report feeling relaxed and having mild changes in perception.  Users also report extreme anxiety, feeling like someone is out to get them (paranoia), and seeing or hearing things that aren’t there (hallucinations).

Spice is pretty new, so there is very little research on how it affects the brain. We do know that the chemicals found in Spice attach to the same nerve cell receptors as THC, the main mind-altering ingredient in marijuana. Some of the chemicals found in Spice, however, attach to those receptors more strongly, which could lead to a much stronger and more unpredictable effect. We still don’t know what many products sold as Spice are actually made of, and we can’t be sure how the chemicals in Spice will harm the user.

What Are the Other Health Effects of Spice?

People who abused Spice and were taken to Poison Control Centers report symptoms like a fast heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion, and hallucinations. Spice can also raise blood pressure and cause less blood to flow to the heart. In a few cases, it has been associated with heart attacks. People who use Spice a lot may experience withdrawal and addiction symptoms.

We still do not know all the ways Spice may affect a person’s health or how toxic it may be, but it is possible that there may be harmful heavy metal residues in Spice mixtures. We’ll have to study the drug more to find out.

What Can Happen if You Use Spice?

In 2011, Spice was mentioned by patients in the ER 28,531 times.  This is an incredible increase over the 11,406 mentions in 2010.  People who have had bad reactions to Spice report symptoms like a fast heart rate, throwing up, feeling nervous, feeling confused, and hallucinations.  Spice can also raise blood pressure and cause less blood to flow to the heart. In a few cases, it has been linked with heart attacks and death. People who use Spice a lot may have withdrawal and addiction symptoms. This means they can’t stop using it even when they really want to and even after it causes terrible consequences to their health and other parts of their lives.

We still do not know all the ways Spice may affect a person’s health or how toxic it may be, but it is possible that there may be harmful heavy metal (e.g., lead or mercury) residues in Spice mixtures.

What Should I Do if I Know Someone Is Using Spice?

When someone you care about has a drug problem, it's not always easy to know what to do. If someone you know is using Spice, share with them the facts about the dangers and encourage him or her to talk to a parent, school guidance counselor, or other trusted adult. There are also anonymous resources, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) and the Treatment Referral Helpline (1-800-662-HELP).

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) is a crisis hotline that can help with a lot of issues, not just suicide. For example, anyone who feels sad, hopeless, or suicidal; family and friends who are concerned about a loved one; or anyone interested in mental health treatment referrals can call this Lifeline. Callers are connected with a nearby professional who will talk with them about what they’re feeling or concerns for other family and friends.

In addition, the Treatment Referral Helpline (1-800-662-HELP)—offered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration—refers callers to treatment facilities, support groups, and other local organizations that can provide help for their specific need. You can also locate treatment centers in your state by going to