Marijuana has been the most commonly used illegal drug in the U.S. for decades, with over 38 million users in 2015, according to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Although many states have now legalized medical marijuana, and in some states recreational marijuana, that doesn’t mean its use is without risk.
Spice, also called K2, is a manmade version of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the compound in marijuana that delivers its psychoactive effects. Spice is made by spraying plant material with synthetic mind-altering chemicals. It is then either packaged as dried material to be smoked or in a liquid form for use in e-cigarettes or other devices.
Because spice offers no medical benefit and has a high potential for abuse, the drug may also contain ingredients labeled as “not for human consumption.” Certain spice products are illegal to sell, buy, or possess. To stay ahead of authorities, as one chemical ingredient in the production of spice becomes illegal, manufacturers often switch to other chemicals.
However, both marijuana and spice can pose significant health threats.
Effects and Risks of Marijuana and Spice
The marijuana grown today is far more potent than it was decades ago. Crops currently being cultivated may contain up to 3 times the THC levels they once did, which can have a much stronger effect on the brain. Multiple studies are finding an association between regular use of higher potency marijuana and negative health reactions, including psychosis. A psychotic episode means losing touch with reality and may include hallucinations and delusions.
According to a study published in the medical journal The Lancet, “daily cannabis use has been associated with increased odds of psychotic disorder compared with those individuals who have never indulged.” The study found the increased risk of psychosis was almost 5 times greater for those regularly using high potency marijuana.
High potency cannabis is defined as containing greater than 10 percent THC; many strains today have as much as 30 percent. Products containing 10 percent or greater levels are commonly available for purchase.
Other risks associated with marijuana use may include:
- Cognitive deficits, including problems with attention, memory, decision making, and learning. Marijuana use is especially dangerous for the adolescent developing brain.
- Motor impairment, including problems with coordination, reflexes, and reaction time.
- Fetal impact: marijuana used during pregnancy may cause the infant to have cognitive and other deficits.
- Increased tolerance: this occurs when the brain adapts to the presence of marijuana and requires greater amounts to achieve the desired effect. Of course, higher doses increase the risk of adverse health reactions and addiction.
The risks associated with marijuana use vary according to many factors, including the age when an individual began using the drug, how often and how much they use it, the level of THC within the drug and whether alcohol or other drugs are used concurrently.
Because the manufacture of spice is unregulated, it’s possible the product is contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides, mold or salmonella. There’s also no certainty about the dose. The product may contain much less or much greater amounts of psychoactive agents than expected.
Spice has also been linked to psychosis. A 2017 study published in Trends in Pharmacological Sciences states that the chemicals in spice are dangerous, possibly leading to psychosis, seizures, dependence, and death. These findings are supported by multiple studies.
Other risks and side effects associated with the use of spice include a dangerous increase in heart rate and blood pressure, convulsions, organ damage, addiction, stroke, heart attack, and death.
Researchers estimate that the chemicals used in spice may be many times more potent than THC levels in marijuana, making it both more addictive and more dangerous.
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