The Network National

Login Form

What are they smoking? How do I know?!

Back at the end of 2010, the much heralded announcement came that the DEA was banning the chemicals found to be giving “Spice” and other herbal smokes their marijuana-like properties. Thus, it was expected that the herbal smokes would fall into the nether regions of the drug world and disappear from the internet and smoke shops of the U.S..

But a quick Google search or stroll to a local strip mall will provide ample evidence that herbal smokes are alive and well. Indeed, campuses are reporting that synthetic marijuana is showing up in a substantial number of student conduct issues. Further, the Monitoring The Future project (Johnston, O’Malley, Bachman, & Schulenberg, 2011) reports that synthetic marijuana was the third

most commonly used substance among 12th graders in 2011 (behind only Alcohol and old-fashion marijuana).[1]


How can this be?Well the problem lies in the specificity of the DEA action. While some synthetic cannabinoids were banned, there are many other slightly different chemicals that can take their place. Thus, we have entered into a cat-and-mouse era where the drug designers are staying one step ahead of the regulators.

So what is in these herbal smokes? The fact is we don’t know. Each manufacturer may be using a unique mix, and even within manufacturers there are many varieties. Since none of the products are sold for human consumption (seems to be a lot of incense burning nowadays), they do not disclose what’s in them.

If we don’t know for sure what is in these products, we have to try to guess. Here’s where things get tricky. While we know a lot about the pharmacology of THC (the natural cannabinoid that seems to have the most action in marijuana), we know far less about the synthetics. Chemicals like JWH-018 are actually rather unlike THC in structure even though they both seem to be activating the same neuron receptors. Therefore, it appears from some lab studies that the synthetic cannabinoids can have substantially different effects on neuron activation. In one study, it was found that JWH-018 was up to 8 times more potent than THC (Järbe, Deng, Vadivel, & Makriyannis, 2011).

But the DEA action makes it much less likely that the herbal smoke concoctions sold today contain JWH-018. So it is not known what action the particular chemicals these products are laced with will have. History clearly tells us there is the potential for these products to have very potent agents.

So this means… “Spice” and other brand-named herbal smokes with synthetic cannabinoids are still around. We are in not able to guide students on the potential harms associated with these products given that so little is known about their constituents and effects. Their diversity of components between and within brands also makes specific predictions about effects impossible. It would seem the safest message is “don’t be a guinea pig.”


Järbe, T. U. C., Deng, H., Vadivel, S. K., & Makriyannis, A. (2011). Cannabinergic aminoalkylindoles, including AM678=JWH018 found in “Spice”, examined using drug (Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol) discrimination for rats. Behavioural Pharmacology, 22(5-6), 498–507.

Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2011, December 14). "Marijuana use continues to rise among U.S. teens, while alcohol use hits historic lows." University of Michigan News Service, Ann Arbor.

[1] The Prescription drugs as a class of substances surpass synthetics, but their individual components (like Adderall and OxyContin) do not.