High Science: Synthetic Marijuana Is Legal, and It Might Get You High -- But Is It Safe?

Anthony Jones grabs a pinch of fluffy green herbs and stuffs it into the bowl of his glass pipe. The pipe, decorated with bright orange, wavy lines, is coated on the inside with layers of thick, dark resin.

It's well used. Jones empties the bowl with one long, hard draw and blows out a cloud of thick, white, musty smoke. "That was my fourth bowl today," he says, packing a fifth.

It's nearly noon on a Tuesday, and Jones says he's been getting high for the past two hours. He feels as though he's smoked several bowls of high-grade marijuana, but what he's really been smoking are "herbal incense blends," commonly known as "spice," that contain various synthetic cannabinoids — chemical compounds made in research labs that produce effects similar to Delta-9 tetrahydracannabinol (better known as THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

Jones started smoking spice regularly about a year ago. He works in the head shop industry and heard about it from co-workers. Because spice was widely available on the Internet and head shops around town, he didn't hesitate to try it.

The first time Jones smoked spice, he said it hit him like a punch in the face. "I was amazed," he says. "I was just warm all over and really, really high. My head was hot, and my ears were burning. It was like smoking chronic. I was like, 'Holy shit, this stuff really works!'"

Twelve months and several pounds of spice later, Jones is pretty sure the stuff isn't safe. It gets him high, but he says it also gives him headaches, stiff muscles, and on two occasions, temporary loss of vision. Once, he smoked such a high dose of synthetic cannabinoids that he found himself crawling around on all fours and vomiting.

Despite the pattern of ill side effects, Jones continues to smoke anywhere from an eighth- to a quarter-ounce of spice every day. It has replaced marijuana as his drug of choice because it's still legal in Arizona and it won't show up on a test for pot. But he also thinks he may be addicted to it.

"My tolerance to this stuff has become unbelievable," Jones says. "With weed, I can take one or two hits, and I'll always reach a point where I'm like, 'I'm good.' And I'll put the pipe down. With spice, I'll smoke it all day long, bowl after bowl. I have to smoke more and more to get the same high."

Spice could be a big problem for people like Anthony Jones. In addition to the health risks, there's always the possibility that Arizona will eventually follow other states and ban its sale and use. Urine tests to detect synthetic cannabinoids are beginning to hit the market, while reports of people freaking out and being hospitalized after smoking spice are showing up in the news. Even the chemist who invented many of the synthetic cannabinoids used in spice says smoking them is "stupid."

Even so, "herbal incense blends" are flying off shelves at head shops everywhere and through the mail from numerous Web sites. It's becoming a multimillion-dollar industry worldwide, even as several countries and states outlaw spice.

Herbal incense/spice products are an amalgamation of dried herbs like damiana, mugwort, and catnip, sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids that get smokers high. There are countless so-called herbal incense blends on the market, including Spice, K2, Pep, Puff, Black Mamba, Voodoo, Starry Night, and Ninja. The blends usually cost anywhere from $10 to $30 a gram and are often packaged in shiny foil baggies or in clear, hard plastic containers.

Most head shops in Phoenix carry various spice blends. Of the 10 Valley head shops New Times contacted, only one — Hippie Gypsy in Tempe — said it didn't carry any kind of "herbal incense" or spice.

Packets of herbal incense contain the warning that the contents are "not for human consumption," but it is common knowledge that people are smoking them to get high while retailers get around the law by selling it "strictly as incense" and refusing to discuss the products' supposed psychoactive effects.

As someone who both smokes and sells herbal incense, Jones is frustrated that he can't speak openly with potential spice buyers.

"I wish that I could be honest with customers and tell them about the real pros and cons of smoking spice," he says. "But I can't even acknowledge that spice is sold for anything other than aromatherapy, or we could run into legal problems."

As people navigate the uncharted waters of spice as a "legal alternative" to pot, its popularity has led to an explosion of other new designer drugs, all widely available via the Internet and mail order to anyone with a credit card — for "research purposes only."

Anthony Jones is familiar with many of the new substances on the market and drugs, in general. He's a longtime marijuana smoker, which is one reason he didn't want to be identified in this story. (Anthony Jones is not his real name.) Even disclosing that he uses a largely unregulated drug like spice makes him uncomfortable. "It's not the legality of smoking spice, because it's perfectly legal for me to do it [in Arizona]," Jones says. "It's the stigma of being someone who takes drugs to get high that I don't want."

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea