Why the Hell Is Spice Big Business in a State With Legal Marijuana?

Why the hell is the faux marijuana known as spice so popular in pot-friendly Colorado?

This question was prompted by a 169-count indictment issued by a Jefferson County grand jury against John Swanson and Michael Whitney late last month. As noted by the First Judicial District DA's office, the two men are accused of "manufacturing, distribution and sale of herbal cigarettes laced with synthetic cannabinoid," defined as "a chemical that is sprayed onto a plant-based material. Its most common street name is 'spice.'"

The cigarettes in question are known as NBT Herbal Smokes; the initials stand alternately for "Never Be Tamed" and "Next Best Thing." The indictment alleges that spice was sprayed on the herbs but the chemicals that make it up weren't listed among the ingredients on packages sold at assorted retail outlets, including Smoker Friendly stores in Jefferson County.

This is hardly the first major local law enforcement operation involving spice. Over the years, we've reported about arrests, raids and other actions near East High School and at locations such as Fort Collins and Loveland. But the continuing demand for the substance remains borderline mystifying, especially in a state where limited legal sales of actual cannabis would seem to decrease the appeal of a non-organic substitute, even for people under age 21.

To get a better idea about why there's still a market for spice, we consulted an expert: Amy Lowe, the outpatient clinical manager at Arapahoe House, which describes itself as "Colorado's largest and leading drug and alcohol rehab." Lowe has worked with chronic users of both marijuana and spice, and she sees the latter as an especially dangerous substance, in part because its man-made ingredients aren't consistent.

Lowe notes that "the nature of the synthetic is that its chemical composition mirrors that of THC," the active ingredient in cannabis, "so it has a similar affect on the brain. It bonds to the same receptor sites; it's made to mimic it. But the actual strands of chemicals, the molecular composition, keeps getting altered by the people who are creating it."

The reason for these efforts has a lot to do with drug testing. Spice use tends not to show up on tests designed to reveal the use of cannabis or other common drugs — and Lowe believes the frequent ingredient changes are intended to foil ongoing attempts at creating ways to detect it.

Hence, she says, "we see people using the drug in lieu of cannabis, almost as a place holder" — individuals "on probation, on parole, and sometimes adolescents who get in trouble at school for having brought marijuana. When they're being monitored by the truancy court, they'll use spice in lieu of marijuana."

Like its ingredients, the effects of spice are highly irregular, Lowe allows. At its most positive, she says, "I hear it described like I hear marijuana described. It produces mild changes in perception and a certain pleasure and euphoria. Sometimes blunted senses help people to relax."

But at other times, Lowe continues, "it leads to varying degrees of anxiety, varying degrees of paranoia and varying degrees of physiological responses, like sweating and hallucinations. And we know that neurologically, it has a profound effect on the pathways responsible for separating different senses. There's some destruction that happens in that way, where the pathways start crossing over, and some of the effects on brain chemistry seem to be irreversible."

Are there actually people who would rather use spice than marijuana?

"Preference is hard to define," Lowe admits. "Most people seem to prefer cannabis. They prefer the highest potency of cannabis they can get. But when a person is using something to self-medicate, preference is usually dictated by accessibility, and in that regard, it would be spice. It's cheaper, easier to get away with and easier to get. Especially young people think, 'I know exactly where to go to get it. I don't have to call a dealer.' So if they're at work and they have a need to be met, spice would be it."

While most marijuana advocates argue that the substance is non-addictive, Lowe is far less definitive. She says addictions exist on a continuum and plenty of behaviors exhibited by chronic pot users can be applied to such a scale. Moreover, she maintains that "cannabis-use disorder has increased 62 percent at Arapahoe House since the legalization of marijuana — and if they meet dependency criteria, those folks are generally finding place holders for marijuana," including spice.

With that in mind, Lowe believes such people "might use spice and have probably tried it. When drug testing is part of treatment, part of legal accountability, and if people are wanting to keep using but can't, they will have tried spice, even though it's super-unpredictable. It's like Russian roulette."

Look below to see booking photos for Whitney and Swanson, who are scheduled to be arraigned on October 21.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts