Synthetic Spice: the science behind the drug

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“People using these drugs need to be aware that it is not like getting a medicine from your local chemist’s shop which has been developed by professionals, rigorously tested in the laboratory, producing the same effect in your body every time. What they are being offered can lead to a whole host of differing health issues, including intoxication, seizures, psychotic episodes, heart and kidney problems, and also death.”  


In recent weeks we have seen headlines in the media like ‘Spice zombies on our streets’ and ‘Manchester police attend 58 spice-linked incidents in one weekend’ and have not unreasonably wondered, ‘what is this nightmare substance?’ The substance in question is not some sort of food that you use in cooking, it is in fact more than one substance. It consists of dry plant material with synthetic chemicals sprayed on it. It may look like marijuana (that’s the idea), but it is very different. Many of these synthetic chemicals are known as cannabinoids, not because they are grown in the same way as cannabis, but because - like molecules found in the cannabis plant - they act on what are called cannabinoid receptors in cells, which alter the way in which the brain’s neurotransmitter ‘messenger molecules’ are released.

Successive legislation has made many of these drugs illegal, but they are now being added too fast for the legal system to keep up. 

The original discovery of the structure of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (D9-THC), the main psychoactive molecule present in marijuana, was made in 1964, and scientists became interested in how this and other molecules affected the brain.

In 1995, Professor John W. Huffman at Clemson University in South Carolina synthesised a molecule that is now known as JWH-018. He found that although it had a very different structure to 9-THC, it bound to the cannabinoid receptors about 5 times as strongly as THC. He had a surprise when in 2008 he was informed that this molecule had been detected in herbal blends sold over the Internet as ‘legal marijuana’. The use of synthetic molecules in such mixtures has since spread like wildfire. In the years since his discovery Huffman came under the spotlight but has always conveyed a robust attitude – ‘you can’t be responsible for what idiots are going to do’.

New materials –“new psychoactive substances” (NPS) - are continually being developed in backstreet laboratories throughout the world to circumvent updates in legislation.Although many of these molecules may look to be very similar, in fact small changes in the length of the carbon chains in the molecule affect the shape and size of the drug molecule in subtle ways and this affects how they bind to the body’s receptor sites, resulting in a profound effect upon the properties of the drug. This isn’t just restricted to psycho-actives, for example the pop star Prince died from an overdose of the painkiller fentanyl in 2016, and laboratories notably in China, are ringing the changes, making more and more potent fentanyl derivatives, where a thousandth of a gram may be lethal.

Problems with ‘designer drugs’ go well back in time. In 1976, a 23-year old American man, Barry Kidston was doing some synthetic chemistry of his own and ended up making a substance named 1-methyl-4-phenyl-4-propionoxypiperidine (MPPP), what would later become known as ‘new heroin’. After a while, Barry Kidston took some short cuts in the reactions, and made a substance he had not intended. This gave him early-onset Parkinson’s disease, a fate that awaited some more people in the 1980s. 

Now vulnerable people are being exploited, offered these drugs cheaply by pushers, when they really should ask themselves ‘cui bono?’ But there’s more to it than that. Though the packaging may look the same, they don’t know if they are getting the same psychoactive chemical every day, let alone the same dose. They also don’t know how long it will take to have an effect on the body (and may be tempted to take more, leading to an overdose). Neither do they know how it may interact with other drugs, including alcohol. What you are being sold in the packet changes in its makeup from day to day, which is why the effects of these drugs vary all the time.

People using these drugs need to be aware that it is not like getting a medicine from your local chemist’s shop which has been developed by professionals, rigorously tested in the laboratory,  producing the same effect in your body every time. What they are being offered can lead to a whole host of differing health issues, including intoxication, seizures, psychotic episodes, heart and kidney problems, and also death.

Have your say...

  • fuck
    1. At 11:17AM on 02 September 2018, fuck wrote


  • Barry the drug dog
    2. At 11:05AM on 23 December 2018, Barry the drug dog wrote

    DoNt dO DrUgS

  • glyn
    3. At 5:19PM on 16 February 2019, glyn wrote

    Fuck its getting bad now there using people like gymiepigs .

  • Dylan (not a spice head)
    4. At 8:45AM on 13 April 2019, Dylan (not a spice head) wrote

    I can't believe that people actually risk taking this mystery, I've dabbled in some drugs but even then I never took anything If I didn't know what it was. Phsycho's need locking up for some time, send them cold turkey 🦃 madness this world is coming to

  • Anoni
    5. At 6:17PM on 16 July 2019, Anoni wrote

    I've tried this drug purely because it was classed as a "bird killer" (time) inside jail and it was cheap I hated it, it became known as green crack or paper crack now I'm finding out that they are selling in liquid form in vapes, this new technology is something kids are very curious about so tell me how many of our kids will die through the foolish greediness of many

  • mumof6
    6. At 9:31AM on 24 August 2019, mumof6 wrote

    My son was just 23 when he died. My boy started using this evil drug when he was just 16. in 2015 my son was sectioned after suffering from psychosis. spice addiction is horrendous the user suffers terribly when withrawing, delusions, sweating, sickness,fear,anxiety, self harm,suicidal thoughts. my baby was like a stranger he was not the person he once was he would isolate himself for weeks he would think people were all plotting to harm him, the fixed beliefs would take over all logic it was very traumatic to watch my boy become more unwell with no real support just judgement from mental health services. My son was nothing in the eyes of certain proffesionals deemed unworthy. I urge anyone with mental health problems never to touch this stuff it destroys the soul. I also believe it as a terrible impact on the developing brain in young users, it is far more potant and damaging than we think it destroyed my son. This drug should be a class A, it is soul destroying, ... My boy battled for 5 years to overcome his addiction we watched him rot away whilst services sat back. I believe my son should have been treated with a dual diagnosis but as we all know mental health services like to push the young away and dish out dustbin diagnosis THE MAIN ONE is personality disorder it seems to be the label that is chosen for our 18 to 25 year olds.

  • Andrew
    7. At 6:25PM on 25 February 2020, Andrew wrote

    I smoked spice heavily from 2008 - 2020 and only just coming to the end of my use now. This is one of the most knowledgeable articles on spice, I was surprised to see you had done your research into JWH-018 and the other first compounds.

    I have been smoking for years and am very clued up on the stuff from where and how it is made to what's in a lot of street stuff.

    If anyone wants to contact me I am happy to help with research whether it be simply asking me stuff or even bringing in some samples to test/ researching my health etc. Ive been involved in a fair bit of research in the past but nothing ever conclusive or in depth.

  • Lagsy 1981
    8. At 1:42AM on 30 September 2020, Lagsy 1981 wrote

    Fuck I've seen this shit first hand what it does to people, especially in uk prisons is it absolutely fuckin rife, when I was banged up people were gettin spiked and it was some of the most funniest shit I've ever seen in the way people were acting, at the same time it was some of the most dangerous shit I've seen to what it done to inmates, but even then everyone just found it right funny just because it passes time in prison.

  • Daniel tull
    9. At 5:18PM on 03 October 2020, Daniel tull wrote

    Špice is a bad Thing IF ur gonna do šank do naturaly stuff not this shit

  • Daniel tull
    10. At 5:18PM on 03 October 2020, Daniel tull wrote

    Špice is a bad Thing IF ur gonna do šank do naturaly stuff not this shit

  • Elaine Robson
    11. At 12:02AM on 04 November 2020, Elaine Robson wrote

    You never want to see your child fade into the dark side of drugs what ever there age the pain is excruciating to say the least your hands are literally tied after alot of very hard work to Save them , no help really talking ,

    triage , valuable time but rehab then treatment, could of saved mine . 🌠

  • Andrew
    12. At 3:49PM on 14 January 2021, Andrew wrote

    Tell me more please 🙏

  • Mark Osborne
    13. At 2:38PM on 18 March 2021, Mark Osborne wrote

    Can someone get in contact im from England UK and would like help getting off spice mambbb


  • nonpusher
    14. At 1:16AM on 28 April 2021, wrote

    you pushed them to the drugs

  • pusher
    15. At 1:25AM on 28 April 2021, wrote

    you didn't push them to the drugs, I'm sorry for saying that. It's complicated isn't it. Perhaps living in a country where we are paying our taxes to a government that profits from the misery of others is part of the problem.

  • Malcolm David Carter
    16. At 8:55AM on 17 June 2021, Malcolm David Carter wrote

    I started doing spice in prison.seemed like smokin weed. At first! Then you quickly find out it ain't.theres thousands of cons with psychosis from smokin that paper shit. A real mind melter. Stick to LSD 25. Though dont know if I'd much want to be trippin on the landing. Know what I mean. But yeah lads behaviour on spice is entertaining,as it is anything but boring. Horrible drug. Screws should supply good weed free or on canteen.thatd stop lads doin mamba!

  • Shane
    17. At 2:11AM on 06 October 2021, Shane wrote

    Where can you buy the spray for spice that's legit

  • Curious lassy
    18. At 5:58AM on 17 November 2021, Curious lassy wrote

    Can someone pls inform me if this drug is used in moorlands prison in Doncaster and if any other drugs are used I'm worried my partner maybe keeping things from me!!! honesty is the best policy I get it's hard in places like this and to extent feel sorry but be good boy an ya won't be serving her majesty's pleasure... We got to ask ourselves who's really to blame for the misuse of these crazy and dangerous drugs??? Theirs a way their getting in FAULTYDIRTYSCREWS

  • Joshua Reynolds
    19. At 5:23AM on 10 January 2022, Joshua Reynolds wrote

    I was addicted for 8 years almost killed me I went through sickness over and over again one hit would take the pain away and one day my aunt got sick ASF and was using it herself and I told her if she didn't stop she was gonna die her lips.were purple two days later she was dead I put it down said if the pain kills me so be it but I will not sit here and slowly kill myself and then I was sick for two weeks couldn't eat sleep or Evan move and I got through it took way I had left back to my dealer told him I was done and he no longer was getting anything from again and I've been sober since.

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