But one local company, Peoria-based Dark Side Spice, makes no claim to have the best or strongest herbal blends on the market - they do, however, claim to make one of the "safest" blends.
"Nearly all spice products on the market today are manufactured using the cheapest botanicals, cheapest and less pure synthetics, artificial flavorings, and solvents such as acetone and alcohols," says Dark Side co-owner Chris Breyfogle. "I started using herbal incense blends because I liked them, but when I realized how people made them, it scared the crap out of me. People pushing all these spice blends out there, they don't care what their products will do to people. I feel a little better at night knowing my stuff won't hurt anybody."The effects of the synthetic cannabinoids in spice blends are still relatively unknown, but in this week's cover story, "High Science," regular spice smokers describe a range of possible ill-effects, from headaches to loss of vision. So what makes Breyfogle think Dark Side Spice is any "safer" than any other herbal incense blend?
Breyfogle says it's in the way his company's spice is manufactured. Most herbal blends on the market are sprayed unevenly with synthetic compounds. Breyfogle says Dark Side uses another method, one that he wouldn't describe to us in detail, but which he says doesn't involve sprays, eliminates the need for solvents, and "leaves a complete envelope around the botanicals."
He says Dark Side doesn't use any artificial flavorings, either. "Most herbal blends are flavored with Juicy Drops or Tasty Puff for flavoring. It smells like Pez, for the most part, and it's gonna taste like a burning leaf," Breyfogle says. "We use dehydrated berries, lemon zest, and lemon grass for flavoring."
Another difference between Dark Side Spice and many other blends is that Dark Side never uses damiana among their herbs. "People use it because it's cheaper than hell," Breyfogle says. "You could probably grow it in your bathtub. But it's extremely harsh in your throat."
But most importantly, Breyfogle says, Dark Side Spice mimics the effects of marijuana more closely than other blends. "We're not kidding ourselves. We know what 'herbal incense' is" he says. "People are looking for something as close to pot as they can get. Some of the spice blends out there are not like pot - there was one blend I tried that I thought had salvia in it, and it freaked me out. This blend is for people who just want to kick back and eat some cookies. We don't need to trip out and see Jesus or anything."
Local smoke shops seem to like Dark Side well enough - it's carried by several stores on the west side, including Nana's Smoke Shop, Traders Smoke Shop, Little Amsterdam, and Mike's Tobacco & Gifts.
"Are we the strongest on the planet? Probably not," Breyfogle says. "But I'll take the Pepsi challenge against those other spice blends anyday."