Legal Herbal Products Laced With Designer Drugs: Not Your Father’s Marijuana

By Daniel J. DeNoon WebMD Health News Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 5, 2010 – K2, Spice Gold, and dozens of other currently legal “herbal incense” products are spiked with powerful designer drugs– and they don’t show up in drug tests.

As early as 2004, this type of product began appearing for sale on the Internet and in head shops in Europe. By 2008, sales throughout Europe soared; U.S. and Canada sales took off in 2009.

Package labels feature psychedelic art and claim that the contents are a mixture of various herbs. But unlike smoking the herbs listed on the label, smoking the products produces effects similar to those of marijuana,  hashish, and other forms of cannabis. Most of these drugs which are contained in the incense were created because they bind much more tightly to the body’s cannabinoid receptors than THC does. THC, in fact, only partially binds to these important regulators of body function. Many of the synthetic cannabinoids fully activate the receptors.

In late 2008, Volker Auwarter, ScD, and colleagues in the forensic toxicology lab at the University Hospital Freiburg, Germany, found that the products contained at least two different designer drugs known as synthetic cannabinoids.

Before trying to find out what was in the herbal incense products, Auwarter wanted to know whether the products really had any activity. So he took what is these days a very unusual step: He and a colleague tested the products on themselves. They took a packet of a product called Spice Diamond and rolled 300 milligrams — a tenth of the package — into a cigarette paper. The two men shared the cigarette, so each consumed only a small dose of about 150 milligrams.

“Nothing happened in the first five minutes. I was just about to roll the next one and suddenly the effects came quite quickly,” Auwarter told WebMD. “I had massive reddening of the eyes and a very dry mouth. My heart rate doubled, from 60 to 120 beats per minute. And the feeling of intoxication was like the experience reported by cannabis users.” Auwarter’s heart pounded away for the six hours it took for the drug’s acute effects to wear off. He did not sleep well that night and felt a slight hangover the next day.

Practitioners may want to consider the possibility of purposeful or inadvertent use of this incense if presented with consumers with these or other unexplained reactions.

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