Tox Thursday: Spice-related illnesses, deaths continue to rise

Emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and calls to poison control centers have all drastically spiked this year as a more dangerous variation of the popular drug known as Spice, has found its way into several countries and even claimed the lives of some naive users. In fact, cases which involve Spice alone or in combination with other substances, have appeared four times as often this year as compared to 2014, according to the American Association of Poison Control.

This has led to health departments across the U.S. and Europe calling for more control and tighter legislation on these synthetic drugs. In Alabama, Mississippi and New York alerts have been issued about the growing frequency of Spice users being rushed to hospitals and experiencing extreme anxiety, violent behavior and delusions, with some cases resulting in death. Similar increases have also occurred in Arizona, Florida, New Jersey, Texas, and in the European Union as well. Health officials in Europe have warned of “acute adverse consequences” for users’ health, which include increased heart rates, seizures, psychosis, kidney failure and strokes.

Spice, a synthetic version of marijuana, is abused mainly by smoking and sometimes is mixed with marijuana or is prepared as an herbal infusion for drinking. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the cannabinoid compounds found in Spice products act on the same cell receptors as Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive component of marijuana. Some of the compounds found in Spice, however, bind more strongly to those receptors, leading to a much more powerful and unpredictable effect.

Spice is also be marketed under names including: K2, Yucatan Fire, Skunk and Moon Rocks, and according to a recent article, can be 100 times as potent as marijuana. This is because it is usually made from a non-marijuana plant material, then laced or sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids or chemicals – many of which have been classified as Schedule I substances by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). This designation means the chemicals are considered highly dangerous and have no approved medical use.

All 50 states and many European countries have banned synthetic cannabinoids by outlawing specific compounds since 2009. However, The DEA says a major problem has been chemical makers, including many in Asia, slightly changing chemical compounds so they are no longer banned controlled substances.

“It’s hard to keep up with them,” DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno, said in an article. “We’re not far behind, but they can tweak a formula faster than we can regulate it.”

For example, in these most recent and extreme cases, health officials are finding a chemical compound called MAB-CHMINACA in Spice. As stated in the article, MAB-CHMINACA is relatively new and hasn’t been banned in many states or by the federal government. A similar compound, AB-CHMINACA, emerged in the illicit drug market in 2014, and was declared an illegal controlled substance in January under a temporary order by the DEA.

“This is the worst outbreak of drug abuse that I’ve lived through,” Dr. Steven Marcus, executive director of the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System at the New Jersey Medical School at Rutgers University, said in the article. “It’s almost as if someone had made a witches’ brew of these cannabinoids. This is not just powerful marijuana. This is really dangerous stuff that has effects that can be life-threatening.”

Spice generally costs about $30/€30 per three-gram package and became popular because it is easy to buy and people wrongly think it is harmless. In the past, it often could not be detected on standard drug tests and many brands list “not for consumption” on the packaging, in an attempt to avoid regulation.

However, earlier this month, in the area of Willimantic, Connecticut, about a dozen people became ill and five were hospitalized after using Spice believed to be laced with the hallucinogen PCP. Area police said they also began receiving calls of people exhibiting psychotic behavior after smoking the drug.

“We’ve seen people running around without shirts, running down main thoroughfares within the city, asking for help,” police corporal, Stanley Parizo Jr., said in the article.

In New York City for example, there were more than 120 emergency-room visits linked to Spice during a little more than a week time span last month. This is compared to an average of just two or three visits a day earlier this year, according to the City Health Department. The same trend is being witnessed in several other states as well including Mississippi, Virginia, Nebraska and in parts of Europe, Australia and Russia.

In another example, after five students from Lancaster University were hospitalized after using Spice, officials from the university sent out an alert on the school’s Twitter account as well as an email to all students asking them to check on friends and to call for an ambulance if any were ill.

In an effort to combat use of the drug before it’s too late, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland is calling for a ban on legal highs and laws to tackle the “head shops” that sell them.

“There is no silver bullet to tackle the scourge of these substances but we cannot sit back while people in our society have their lives put at risk by these dangerous substances and those who peddle them,” Alex Easton, Northern Ireland Unionist politician, said in an article.

Neogen’s Synthetic Cannabinoids (Spice) enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA) are the most sensitive and comprehensive screening test on the market for the detection of synthetic cannabinoids in multiple forensic matrices. For more information, click here and visit the Neogen website, here.

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