Legal high ‘Spice’ continuing to cause issues in UK and beyond

Spice continuing to cause issues in UK

The Psychoactive Substances Act which came into effect on May 26th, has outlawed anything that the government believes has a psychoactive effect on the human brain. This legislation has been the result of months of campaigning from various groups and organisations to have legal highs banned across the UK.

The widespread popularity of these types of substances has resulted in numerous cases of users suffering an extensive range of effects ranging from paranoia and blood pressure increase, to extreme cases of death. One of the main causes of these incidents is the rise in consumption and popularity of synthetic cannabis. K2 or “Spice” comprises of a mixture of herbs and spices, typically sprayed with a synthetic compound that is chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana or cannabis.

But what is this substance and how did its formation take place? In 2006, an organic chemist called John Huffmann and his colleagues at Clemson University in South Carolina published their research, into new ways of developing anti-inflammatory drugs, which by chance happened to involve the creation of hundreds of synthetic cannabis compounds, including one called JWH-018. When scientists decided to test this newly formed substance, they quickly discovered that it had no connection to the cannabis plant, but instead contained the newly discovered compound JWH-018 created by Huffman and his peers. Huffman’s compound acts like the real thing, unlocking the brain’s cannabinoid receptors to give the sensation of being high. As a result of this, JWH-018 was banned in the UK in 2010. In order to find alternative methods of consuming the substance chemists started making Spice with other synthetic compounds (of which there are over 400) that were still legal, meaning new substances were hitting the market on a daily basis.

These new variations in the substance have fallen into the hands of users over the world including the UK, despite the ban being placed to try and curb the effects of the legal high. But according to Dr Olive Sutcliffe from Manchester Metropolitan University, people ‘don’t need a chemistry degree to make spice.’

He told Sky News that the chemistry or the actual process is incredibly straight forward, and even said it would be ‘naive’ to think people weren’t preparing for the ban. This has been the case in parts of London, where the drug has become so popular and available in parts of the city that the areas have become known as ‘Spicetown’.

Furthermore, prisons across the UK are experiencing increasing cases of prisoners smuggling in and using the substance. They then suffer from varying range of effects depending on the potency. Nigel Newcomen, who investigates every death in custody, said there was 39 deaths linked to new psychoactive substances, such as the synthetic cannabinoid Spice, a rise from the figure of 19 between 2012 and 2014.

There are numerous cases worldwide where Spice has left people with horrible effects due to developing addiction to the substance quickly. Some people have pointed to the potency of the drug as to one of the reasons for addiction. There has been specific cases whereby when the substance is in manufacturing stage, the spraying of the compound on the plant base can vary greatly, and if this process is careless in any way, hotspots in a batch can leave some of the legal highs with a higher concentration than others, with potentially life-threatening effects.
There is increasing evidence to show that synthetic cannabinoids are more harmful than cannabis. A study using data from the 2013 Global Drug Survey, which questioned more than 20,000 people from 123 countries about their drug use, found that users of synthetic cannabis were 30 times more likely to need an ambulance than regular cannabis users. It concluded that synthetic cannabinoids “expose users to a significantly greater risk of short-term harm than natural cannabis”.

Testing for legal highs

Randox Testing Services is at the forefront of developing tests to detect the presence of legal highs. One example of this is that the world’s first synthetic cannabinoid detection ‘spice’ test was developed at Randox. In the endless pursuit of creating innovative tests for new and emerging legal highs, our expertise sets us apart from the rest of the industry. For more information on our tests for psychoactive substances please visit or get in touch at