Pros and Cons of the Spice Trade
An op-ed by Robin Rage
You’ve heard about synthetic cannabis on the news, read about it in the papers, or maybe just seen more and more of those colorful little packets littering the corners of the old city alongside the needle caps. It’s an over-the-counter product, natural herbs (usually damiana, safflower or marshmallow leaf, I’m told) sprayed with a variety of designer chemicals concocted to give the user a weed-like high. It goes by names like K-2, Diesel, Stanky, Mr. Happy, Spice. You can buy it at gas stations and head shops. Most drug tests don’t detect it, so you don’t have to worry about those pesky little piss jars anymore, or about meeting up with your local mom-and-pop pot dealer (which can be like waiting for the cable guy).
Hell, you can even puff it in public. ’Cause it’s legal.
So you’ve heard about spice from your side of the window. This was written from the other side — the view from the street and the woods. This is the homeless’ experience with spice.
“It’s illegal to smoke stuff that grows out of the ground, but I can smoke as much of this catnip sprayed with Deep Woods Off! as I want. Doesn’t that seem twacked?”
— D.J., Portland spicehead.
According to some sources, synthetic cannabis first made its appearance in the U.K., back in 2004, under the brand names Spice and K-2 — names now synonymous with the stuff. It hit the U.S. by 2008 and now it’s all over the globe and all over Maine. Attempts to ban individual chemicals in the product (substances with unintelligible names like JWH-018, AM-694, and RCS-4) have been made, but spice lab geeks have managed to design similar replacement chemicals every time.
“It’s legal, it gets you higher, and I don’t get drunk anymore — and I don’t have to worry about pissing positive for weed anymore.”
– Roscoe, Portland spicehead
So, what’s the problem?
Some unwanted side effects will probably be experienced by new users of the drug. Here are the most commonly reported complaints:
- Severe Emotional Outbursts. These can include uncontrollable sobbing, anxiety, feelings of helplessness or even of impending doom.
- Loss of Motor Control. This can range from a mere or severe lack of coordination to mild or even severe seizures.
- Stomach Troubles. Symptoms include constant gas, loose stools, chronic diarrhea, cramping and vomiting.
- Loss of Consciousness. From brief blackouts where you were actually conscious, but have no idea what just happened, to passing out completely for longer periods of time.
- Wacky, Un-weed-like, Uncharacteristic Behavior. This covers a lot. Several users have found themselves banned from the Preble Street Resource Center, the shelter, the library, even local business, due to their outlandish behavior while on spice — whether it’s involved violence, threats of violence, or just plain loud and annoying acting out. Another uncharacteristic behavior exhibited by many Portland spiceheads: panhandling. Several claimed to this writer that before needing money for spice, they didn’t beg.
And, of course, there are the recent burglaries — and one attempted robbery — of stores that sell spice. Potheads don’t usually engage in violence, and robberies and burglaries take a lot of motivation. What’s that about? Is that addiction?
“Man, I miss the days when I used to be able to take just one hit and get so high I’d have a seizure.”
– Alex, Portland spicehead
“I thought I was going to die.”
– Kabir, Portland spicehead.
Although the high of spice is much more intense than that of marijuana (“It’s like the feeling you get after you’ve smoked LOTS of pot,” said a local spicehead named Stanley), it’s short-lasting, ending abruptly after only about 10 minutes. You have to keep smoking spice to stay high and avoid its abrupt cutoff.
The good news about these bad side effects? They’ll usually disappear in a week or two, once your body acclimates itself to the drug. However, several people I interviewed also claimed to have suffered from severe withdrawal symptoms when unable to obtain spice for a period of time. These symptoms ranged from headaches to stomach troubles to hallucinations.
“I would stand out in the cold for 10 hours to earn five dollars to get a nickel bag of spice. Know why? ’Cause if I didn’t, I’d start mainlining heroin and drinking again, and that would be a problem.”
— Nick, Portland spicehead
Can there be a benefit to spice? Its use does seem to have an impact on other addictions, which begs for scientific inquiry. When a hardcore alcoholic is able to completely stop or moderate their alcohol use due to spice consumption, that demands attention. We’re talking about late-stage, no-hope drunks — our Congress Square, open-container peeps — quitting drinking. Unfathomable. Addicts using spice to come off opiates is a pretty huge plus, as well (Maine still has the highest percentage of people seeking treatment for narcotics of any state in the nation). Even the crackheads use spice to moderate their intake. And — no surprise — potheads who say they’ll never quit weed have no problem stopping if spice is available.
Curiously, though, people report that having been on spice for a while, they can no longer get high off marijuana. Whether this is due to a receptor-blocker effect or the comparatively more intense high of spice remains to be determined. A week or two of abstinence from spice will be required, heads say, before the old weed will get you high again.
“It’s gonna be illegal by summer.”
– Portland police officer
I imagine the cops who patrol the straight and narrow must feel a sense of frustration seeing the lads openly smoke spice in public, their only recourse being to say, “Move it on, boys.” But you know what else is sold over the counter, legally, in friendly packages? Oh, yes — alcohol, and cigarettes, which still kill more of us than alcohol and all hard drugs combined.
Of all the spiceheads I spoke with, only three ended up giving it up. One continues to snort heroin, one rediscovered Jesus, and one took up drinking again and is currently in County. The rest are still smoking.