K2 and Spice: Stop Calling That Junk Synthetic Marijuana

K2 is a Schedule 1 substance. Similarities with cannabis end there.

“Synthetic marijuana” is a trending topic wherever bad news is told, and rightly so. Branded as K2 or Spice, this shredded plant material soaked in noxious chemicals is parceled out in garish foil packets and sold over the counter in bodegas, gas stations, and crappy convenience shops wherever consumers have more desperation than resources. K2 and Spice are marketed as incense that can be smoked.

In some circles, this substance—like paint thinner or airplane glue or gasoline—is looked upon as a cheap, powerful intoxicant. It has the added benefit of not showing up in a drug test for marijuana.

When fired up, the K2 chemical infusion produces a high that, researchers say, includes “increased agitation, pale skin, seizures, vomiting, profuse sweating, uncontrolled/spastic body movements, elevated blood pressure, heart rate and palpitations.” That bliss is for the short term. As the high settles in, “users may experience: dysphasia [inability to speak], severe paranoia, delusions, and hallucinations.”

"The word marijuana gives the impression that the product will produce an effect mimicking weed consumption, with a similar level of user risks. That’s a dangerous fallacy to hint at."

Long-term effects are not yet known to science, but street-level observers see only bad coming from continued K2 and Spice use. Stroke, brain damage and death are commonly mentioned side effects from cumulative exposure.

Like marijuana, the synthetic compounds that give K2 its kick are classified as Schedule 1 substances, which is the Drug Enforcement Administration’s harshest designation. The similarities between cannabis and the shifting concoction of poisons cited in alarming “Synthetic Marijuana” headlines end there.

The unfortunate result of tossing around the term synthetic marijuana while discussing K2 or Spice in publications from the New York Times to Vice is that the clear distinction between actual weed and the synthetic toxins blurs. That blurring matters. Defining false-flagged intoxicants as anything akin to cannabis does a double disservice.

One, the word marijuana gives the impression that the product will produce an effect mimicking weed consumption, with a similar level of user risks. That’s a dangerous fallacy to hint at.

Two, there’s a danger that synthetic marijuana’s bad press will bleed over into public perceptions of real marijuana and users of actual weed. Responsible cannabis consumers are finally being accepted as regular adults who have kids and jobs and the level of credit card debt that keeps this country strong. Why should this hard-fought acceptance be impeded by a gross headline misnomer?

K2 and Spice are not the first synthetic scourges on America’s drug menu to inflame the mass media’s imagination.

In the 1970s, heightened antidrug hysteria reached a pinnacle with PCP. Most often consumed by smoking tobacco drenched in the drug and rolled into a joint, PCP was written about in the press as a terrifying substance that turned users into comatose corpse-like creatures. Law enforcement portrayed the typical PCP user as a raging psychopath with superhuman strength, impervious to pain, a danger to civilized society best subdued by gunfire.

In short, PCP—often referred to as angel dust—was demonized even beyond its actual hellish properties. The drug, and the people who used it, were exploited to escalate the drug war, presented as excuses for militarized police actions, get tough sentencing and zero tolerance.

The PCP bane was largely confined to inner city neighborhoods. Authorities empowered to do something about it, and the news media, primarily addressed angel dust as a solution to a propaganda shortage.

But no one ever stooped to calling that poison synthetic weed.