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 that produce experiences similar to marijuana (cannabis). Spice mixtures are marketed as “natural,” legal alternatives to marijuana, but labeled “not for human consumption.” They are sold under many names—K2, fake weed, Yucatan Fire, Skunk, Moon Rocks, and others. They contain dried, shredded plant material along with manmade chemicals that cause mind-altering effects.

For several years, Spice has been easy to purchase in head shops (stores that sell drug products) and gas stations and online. But, the chemicals used in Spice have a high potential for abuse and no medical benefit. So, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has made it against the law to sell, buy, or possess them. People who make Spice products try to avoid these legal restrictions by using different chemicals in their mixtures. The DEA continues to watch the situation and review the need to update the list of banned chemicals.

How Many Teens Use Spice Products?

A graph depicting the use of illicit drugs.

Text alternative for Past-Year Use of Illicit Drugs graph

Spice products are popular among young people; of the illegal drugs most used by high-school seniors, they are second only to marijuana. Easy access and the misunderstanding that Spice products are “natural” and safe have likely contributed to their popularity.

How Is Spice Abused?

Some Spice products are sold as “incense,” but they look more like potpourri. Like marijuana, most people smoke Spice. Sometimes, it is mixed with marijuana or is prepared as an herbal tea for drinking.

How Does Spice Affect the Brain?

Many Spice users have experiences similar to what they would experience if they used marijuana—relaxed feelings and changes in perception. In some cases, the effects are even stronger than those of marijuana. Some users report effects like extreme anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations.

Spice is pretty new, so we haven’t yet studied 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 component of 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 don’t know the chemical composition of many products sold as Spice. So, it’s likely that some varieties also contain substances that could cause very different effects than the user might expect.

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.