Toxic exposure to dangerous drugs that mimic the structure and effects of THC fell in states that legalized cannabis, according to a new study—confirming the idea that nature knows best, and that cannabis is far safer (and more popular) than spice.

It’s not the leaf matter, but the powdered drug sprayed on smokable plants. In the U.S. and Canada, it’s called “spice” or “K2,” and in Turkey it’s called “bonsai.” In Japan, different varieties of compounds are popular called “dappo.” But all drugs in the class are essentially the same: synthetic compounds that mimic the intoxicating effects of THC. In the U.S., damiana is the most common herb the drug is sprayed on, while nearly all varieties are sold sprayed on mixtures of smokable plants.

There are at least 450 different chemical compounds now being sold—often synthesized by amateurs, with dangerous consequences. People who turn to them risk their own well-being just to pass a drug test for cannabis.

The drugs gained popularity in the 2000s and reached a boiling point by 2015. Over 42,000 cases of toxic exposure from spice drugs were reported between 2010 and 2015, according to the ToxIC Case Registry. By 2016, spice use was considered an emergency situation in New York City. In 2017, experts estimated that half a million people in Turkey were regular bonsai smokers.

Can the situation get worse? Actually it can. In 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning that the U.S. blood supply is contaminated with spice drugs and that the spiked blood can cause further effects in the people who receive donated blood. That scare, however, was caused by spice drugs being laced with brodifacoum.

Fortunately, legal weed appears to be making spice less popular.

What the Data Shows

The study, titled “Synthetic cannabinoid poisonings and access to the legal cannabis market: findings from US national poison centre data 2016–2019,” analyzed data spanning three years, and was published online on August 8.

What they found was a significant drop in toxic exposures to spice drugs, presumably because people prefer the real thing.

“Adoption of permissive state cannabis policy was independently and significantly associated with 37% lower reported annual synthetic exposures,” researchers wrote, “relative to restrictive policies.”

States with adult-use cannabis were associated with 22% fewer reported quarterly exposures—and the opening of retail markets was associated with 36% fewer reported exposures, relative to states with only medical cannabis.

“Adoption of permissive cannabis law was associated with significant reductions in reported synthetic cannabinoid exposures,” researchers wrote. “More permissive cannabis law may have the unintended benefit of reducing both motivation and harms associated with use of synthetic cannabis products.”

One reason that people turn to spice when cannabis is clearly a safer bet is that people want to avoid failing drug screens for cannabis for pre-employment tests or other purposes.

CNN reports that the study shows the popularity of spice is declining, particularly in states that legalized cannabis. Tracy Klein is assistant director for the Center for Cannabis Policy, Research and Outreach at Washington State University in Vancouver, Washington. “These products are made in a powdered format and could be sprayed on or added to something that looks exactly like natural cannabis. So, in a party situation, I could see that someone could use this unintentionally,” Klein told CNN.

WTF is Spice?

“Synthetic cannabinoids,” if you want to call them that, are nothing new, but one particular compound took off as a recreational drug.

JWH-018—the original spice drug compound—began as a research chemical for medical purposes. John W. Huffman, for which the compound was named, synthesized JWH-018 in 1995 as one of many synthetic cannabinoids.

Then circa 2004-2007 JWH-018 suddenly started appearing all over the internet—often marketed as “bonsai fertilizer.” Most likely the bonsai fertilizer tag was simply a front.

Lewis Nelson, a medical toxicologist at the NYU School of Medicine, said that it’s a poor decision to call these types of drugs “synthetic cannabinoids” as they behave far differently from organic cannabis.

The drugs are still popular, and proof is in the news. In New Haven, Connecticut, for instance, over 100 people overdosed on a batch of K2 in 2018. But as more states legalize cannabis and reduce drug testing for cannabis, spice use is falling.

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