At Queen of the Valley Medical Center a lot of patients come and go out who unknowingly put themselves in harm’s way. And several patients come in with severe health complications due to smoking “spice” cigarettes like Kiss.
None of them suspected these cigarettes would put them in the hospital with problems ranging from anxiety and racing heartbeats to seizures. Most of these patients were underage and neither the patient nor their parents seemed to be aware of the complications from smoking these seemingly harmless cigarettes. The anti-smoking researchers’ goal is to increase awareness and to make sure that people know the hidden dangers of these not so innocent “spice” or “herbal” cigarettes that can be found just about anywhere.
“Spice” is a brand name and also a slang term for several types of herbal cigarettes. Spice has been sold around the world since 2002, but its use has multiplied over the last several years. You can find these products for sale at smoke shops, online, and even in some gas stations. They are marketed as “herbal” or incense but in reality they are being sold for their marijuana-like effects.
They have catchy, seductive names such as K2, Black Magic, Black Mamba, Genie, Ganja, Mr. Smiley, Sativa, Sence, Skunk, Spirit, Supernova, Warlock, Zohai, and Apex Incense. But these products do more than give unsuspecting users the “high” or “feeling” they were expecting.
These cigarettes actually contain synthetic cannabinoids, similar to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Unfortunately, these chemicals have a huge affect on the brain, and can be five times more potent than THC. In some respects you can call these cigarettes “super” marijuana because they can be exponentially more potent than the natural plant.
So what does all this mean? People who smoke spice cigarettes experience much greater affects than if they smoked actual marijuana. A small amount causes much more of a high and the side effects are unfortunately, much more serious. Problems include intense anxiety, agitation, vomiting, hallucinations and even seizures. These symptoms can often last days instead of just hours. I have taken care of patients with non-stop vomiting that was likely related to smoking spice.
In the emergency department at Queen of the Valley Medical Center, there has been an increase in patients with complications from smoking these cigarettes. Most of the time, they are teenagers and young adults who do not know the risks involved with smoking spice cigarettes.
Most parents have never heard of these products and are shocked to hear that these cigarettes are in fact synthetic marijuana. Some even question why they are even legal.
Although it is true that low dose marijuana has been used to treat nausea, marijuana and chemicals like those found in spice cigarettes and even long term or heavy use of marijuana can cause a vomiting syndrome called cannibinoid hyperemesis syndrome. This disorder typically is characterized by recurrent nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.
Hyperemesis may develop very rapidly in patients smoking spice cigarettes. Usually cannibinoid hyperemesis syndrome presents after a history of several years of marijuana use. When patients stop smoking marijuana then the vomiting will stop as well. The vomiting usually returns shortly after they start smoking marijuana again. Interestingly, some of these patients may develop a syndrome where they are compelled to take multiple hot showers or baths to stop the vomiting.
Another significant problem is the lack of studies or data on these drugs to determine the long-term health problems that may exist from using these products. Spice cigarettes are not currently classified as controlled substances in the U.S.; therefore the amount of information that is known about them is very limited.
What exactly in the cigarettes is also questionable. As history tends to repeat itself, however, we should be warned of the dangers of synthetic illegal products like these. Most of us are aware that moonshine and illegal alcohols also have caused and continue to cause blindness and even death. In the late 1980s, many individuals unknowingly came down with a Parkinson-like syndrome from taking certain synthetic amphetamine and LSD products that were also legal at the time. Unfortunately knowing all the risks from smoking these cigarettes doesn’t mean that it will stop its popularity among today’s youth and adults
Spice drugs have unfortunately also become very popular with athletes. One of the reasons for this is that the chemicals found in spice do not register a positive marijuana result on current drug tests. This can be problematic for parents, teachers, employers and clinicians. It can lead to unnecessary testing, incorrect diagnoses and even the wrong treatment. With no standard testing for these drugs, often times, unless the patient is forthcoming, the correct diagnosis may never be made and opportunities for treatment sadly missed.
Due to problems overseas, spice and its related products are illegal in the armed services. Also many countries have classified the drug as a controlled substance. In the U.S, it is illegal or will become illegal with pending legislation in 14 states. Unfortunately, California is not yet one of those states. Perhaps by informing the public, we can better protect our teenagers and community preventing senseless and sometimes very serious health problems.