“He who controls the Spice controls the universe,” promised Frank Herbert’s Dune, referring to a drug that expanded the minds of users and put them in communion with the harsh desert world of Arrakis. In Star Wars, Han Solo had to dump a smuggled shipment of Spice bound for Jabba the Hutt and ended up frozen in carbonite. So it’s truly disappointing that when something called Spice finally makes an appearance in cannabis circles, it has none of the old-school cool it should. In fact, the synthetic cannabinoid that bears the name—which could have been saved for some sci-fi-minded horticulturalist’s magnum opus—is about as close to the real, leafy green as the Cutex 1990s delinquents relished huffing from bags.
Since 2011, the news has been awash with stories of synthetic marijuana smoking gone awry, so much so that in 2013, the American Academy of Addiction Psychology coined the term “spiceophrenia” to adequately describe the high brought on by the potentially-lethal mix of herbs and chemicals. A list of symptoms of a spice high reads more like the effects of PCP than THC, from severe agitation to assaultive actions to suicidal thoughts and actions.
Even though natural cannabis has a millennia-long history of safe use in a number of cultures, synthetic substitutes have directly caused more death and destruction in their four years of popularity than cannabis has. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Synthetic cannabinoid products are often labeled "not for human consumption." Labels also often claim that they contain "natural" material taken from a variety of plants. However, the only parts of these products that are natural are the dried plant materials. Chemical tests show that the active, mind-altering ingredients are cannabinoid compounds made in laboratories.” These elements are sprayed on the plant matter.
All this makes the question a little obvious: Why smoke synthetic cannabis at all? It’s not as though the real McCoy, illegal though it may be in most places, is impossible to get ahold of. The answer is simple: drug tests.
While cannabis stays in the user’s system for longer than almost any other scheduled substance, drugs like cocaine and certain opioids can be flushed in a matter of days. This fact makes it easier—ridiculously—for those tested on a regular basis to use hard drugs than cannabis, and has consistently been a source of misery for people in government, union or corporate jobs and for collegiate and professional athletes. Synthetic cannabis, on the surface, offered a solution to this Catch-22 by claiming to give the same high without the chemical makeup. The reality is much harsher, and often ends where few cannabis highs can—in the hospital or the morgue. But the harshest thing about synthetic cannabis deaths and injuries is that the entire synthetic cannabis industry is the unwanted child of prohibition.
Lamar Jack, 19-year-old basketball player at Anderson University, is a perfect example of the ugly system of hurt and heartbreak that prohibition has created by necessitating a loophole in the cannabis question. Jack, an NCAA athlete in his physical prime, collapsed during a Friday practice in 2011 after having ingested synthetics containing a chemical known as JWH-018. He died later at a nearby hospital.
Cannabis is especially popular as a medicinal supplement among athletes because it offers pain relief and recovery aid—at a premium for basketball players, whose enormous and often-fragile frames are subjected to much—but for most sportsmen and women, it is unavailable as an option until at least after retirement. Maybe Jack had no idea of cannabis’s medical uses, maybe he knew exactly what the benefits could be. This is immaterial. The point is that if he had been able to get his hands on some actual cannabis, if the NCAA, FDA and other edifices of power had realized the human toll of continued prohibition and acted, he’d still be alive, and so would dozens of others—15 of whom died just between January and May of last year.