Op-ed: Did the DEA drop the ball on Spice?

Is the drug classification system hurting Americans?

In the late 1960s, free love and heavy drug use were rampant trends, increasingly exposed to the American people and American policymakers. One of the results of this national spotlight on the recreational drugs widely used by youths was President Richard Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell’s brainchild, the Controlled Substances Act.

The CSA consolidated preexisting drug laws and added several new rules, all while creating the drug scheduling system used today. A few years later, the Drug Enforcement Agency was also founded.

As it currently exists, the CSA has a hierarchy of drug “schedules,” varying from Schedule One drugs with the highest abuse liability and no current medicinal uses, like heroin and MDMA, to the lowest Schedule Five drugs that have a low potential for abuse and current medical uses, such as codeine. A curious detail of the CSA is the scheduling of marijuana, which, despite being extensively researched for medicinal purposes, is a Schedule One drug.

A rapidly growing trend in the United States is the abuse of synthetic cannabinoids, a group of chemicals similar in structure to the psychoactive ingredient THC, found in marijuana.

These compounds, often labeled by drug dealers as “Spice” or “K2,” were designed by an American scientist for the purpose of increasing our knowledge of how drugs like THC interact with specific cannabinoid receptors in the brain.

Spice has since been used for a far less academic purpose, instead becoming a common substitute for people who enjoy the effects of smoking marijuana but don’t want to test positive on drug screenings. While those with limited understanding of Spice’s effects on the body may see this drug as another foolish activity for teenagers and young adults to enjoy while lying on the couch, eating Doritos and watching “Half Baked,” the reality of Spice useage is much more troubling.

Contrasting the effects of marijuana and Spice on the body is like comparing getting the roof of your mouth burned on hot pizza to sticking your face in a pool of molten lava. THC only partially activates the cannabinoid receptors in the brain, while compounds that make up Spice fully activate cannabinoid receptors, resulting in several undesirable side effects.

Spice has had numerous clinical reports of toxicity in patient populations all over the United States, including more than 15,000 cases of adverse exposures reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers from 2010 to 2012.  Reported negative effects after smoking Spice include tachycardia, drug withdrawal symptoms following chronic use, convulsions and even reports of psychosis and death from overdose. Even more troubling is the ambiguous nature of what makes up Spice, as well as the fact that Spice isn’t tested in common drug screenings. This makes it difficult for physicians and medical researchers to keep up with what abusers are putting in their bodies.

Reports of increasing Spice use among young adults are growing, including several high profile cases of use among college football players and members of the Armed Forces. All these facts have led the DEA to place synthetic cannabinoids like Spice on the Schedule One drug list in July 2012, in efforts to “avoid an imminent hazard to public safety.”

I can’t help but focus on the fact that “public safety” was cited in the DEA’s announcement. The CSA exists as a government attempt to ensure public health and safety by deterring the abuse of dangerous and addictive drugs. Isn’t it ironic that the CSA, which holds marijuana to a higher schedule than cocaine or methamphetamine – both are Schedule Two drugs – seems to have precipitated the rising use of a synthetic alternative to marijuana that is far more dangerous?

Isn’t it perplexing that the CSA exists with its current structure and wording, despite former U.S Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders having claimed marijuana is “not a toxic substance” and current Attorney General Eric Holder allowing states to pass laws legalizing marijuana? These are the types of questions the federal government needs to answer in the coming years, while the lobby for marijuana legalization and medical research supporting marijuana use for the treatment of disease grows.

North Philadelphia is a microcosm of the global health problem that is drug action. I chose a career in research studying drug addiction to help all of the people struggling with this terrible disease, including those I see every day at Temple. I want the government to enact laws to deter drug use and aid in helping addicts get clean.

The CSA is a step in the right direction, but it needs a major overhaul. Our elected officials need to take a hard look at our drug policy before our current laws lead to another dangerous drug trend like we’re seeing now with Spice.

Ryan Gregg is a third-year graduate student at the Center for Substance Abuse Research, Temple University School of Medicine. He can be reached at ryan.gregg@temple.edu.

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