Spice Gold Spirit, JWH-018 and your local neighborhood cigar shop

Aug 02 2010 Published by under Cannabis, Medicine and Law, Pharmacology

You may have heard a bit on your local news or perhaps read a piece in your local paper about quasi-legal synthetic marijuana products being sold in your local head shop as "incense". They come under a variety of brand names of which Spice and K2 may be most familiar. Very likely, the media bit you have seen was from some local politician or other trying to make some political hay over his or her concerns that this incense is ruining the lives of the constituency. All that hysteria for incense? Something else must be afoot, you are thinking...and you are quite correct.

Abel Pharmboy had a very good description of the reason people are willing to pay $60 (USD) for about 3 grams of plant material.

The compound most commonly found in these products is a chemical first synthesized by the well-known Clemson University organic chemist, Prof John W Huffman: the eponymous JWH-018. Another compound, found in Spice products sold in Germany, is an analog of CP-47,497, a cannabinoid developed by Pfizer over 20 years ago.
Known as (1-pentyl-3-(1-naphthoyl)indole), or the more proper IUPAC name of Naphthalen-1-yl-(1-pentylindol-3-yl)methanone, JWH-018 is one of over 100 indoles, pyrroles, and indenes synthesized by the Huffman laboratory to develop cannabimimetics, drugs that mimic the effect of cannabinoids such as THC.

Well, yes, that would make sense, wouldn't it? Not so expensive looking if it gets you high in a similar way as marijuana, eh?

I had a post  in which I discussed a Case Report of dependence on the Spice Gold product and remarked that there were similarities with reports on cannabis dependence (start here for an intro). There were also two excellent posts from our good blog friend leigh who covered the structure of JwH-018 and efficacy and potency differences between a full agonist (such as JWH-018) and a partial agonist (such as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol). The second post concludes, in part, as follows:

1. JWH-018 is more potent than THC. Lower concentrations of drug will produce notable effects with JWH-018 than with THC.

2. JWH-018 is more efficacious than THC. The maximal effect of JWH-018 is greater than that of THC in every physiological measure that’s been captured to date.

3. The points I bring up in 1 and 2 DO NOT mean that JWH-018 is like THC, but “better” or “stronger” or any other comparator. The considerably different pharmacological properties of these two drugs causes them to have (perhaps related but) distinct effect profiles.

There is a lot we still don't know about how full cannabinoid agonists may work when used in these types of so-called incense products. Lots of questions about the specific compounds being used, the possible mixture of them, the doses being administered, bioavailability of the drug when taken by various routes of administration (smoked, eaten, etc) and other issues.

We also don't know all that much about the epidemiology yet. This is too recent of a phenomenon to have good wide-spectrum data yet- it probably takes two years minimum to add it to one of the major surveys like the Monitoring the Future project (in the US) and to get the first year's data published. What I can tell you is that there is a tremendous search-engine interest. Abel Pharmboy and I have both remarked that we've never experienced such sustained Google search traffic on any other post*.

I can offer another anecdote today, and I'd invite my readers to do a little research as well. My story started a couple of months back when I was buying cigars as a present for a family member. The cigar shop, which I will note does a thriving business in hookahs and is not particularly respectable looking, did not have any of the synthetic marijuana products. I asked about this and the proprietor got semi-huffy about it and insisted they would never carry these items. Well, lo and behold, I revisited the cigar shop recently and the front case was heavily laden with suspiciously expensive incense. (There was also some salvia product in the case. One of these days I have to get back around to talking about that particular recreational drug.)

One product, Spice Spirit Gold, seemed reasonably typical of the type. The package says that it contents "include" the following (all definitions from Wikipedia).

Leonurus cardiaca
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is an herbaceous perennial plant in the mint family, Lamiaceae. Other common names include Throw-wort, Lion's Ear, and Lion's Tail. The latter two are also common names for Leonotis leonurus. Originally from Central Asia it is now found worldwide, spread largely due to its use as a herbal remedy.

Pedicularis Canadensis
Pedicularis canadensis is a flowering plant in the family Orobanchaceae (Broomrape). It is closely related to Figwort. P. canadensis is also known under the names "Wood betony" and "Canada lousewort".

Scutellaria Lateriflora
Scutellaria lateriflora, also known as Blue Skullcap, Hoodwort, Virginian Skullcap, Mad-dog Skullcap[1] is a hardy perennial herb native to North America. It is a member of the mint family.

Altheaea Oficinalis
Althaea officinalis (Marshmallow, Marsh Mallow, or Common Marshmallow) is a species Indigenous to Africa, which is used as a medicinal plant and ornamental plant.

Rosa Damascena
Rosa × damascena, more commonly known as the Damask rose or simply as "Damask", or sometimes as the Rose of Castile, is a rose hybrid, derived from Rosa gallica and Rosa moschata (Huxley 1992). Further DNA analysis has shown that a third species, Rosa fedtschenkoana, is associated with the Damask rose[1].
The flowers are renowned for their fine fragrance, and are commercially harvested for rose oil (either "rose otto" or "rose absolute") used in perfumery and to make rose water and "rose concrete".

Vanilla Planifolia
Vanilla planifolia is a species of vanilla orchid. It is native to Mexico, and is one of the primary sources for vanilla flavouring, due to its high vanillin content. Common names are Flat-leaved Vanilla, Tahitian Vanilla (for the Pacific stock formerly thought to be a distinct species), and West Indian Vanilla (also used for the Pompona Vanilla, V. pompona).

I've been curious as to what sorts of plants were being used. Now I know at least a subset. It was also fairly interesting to see that the package makes it clear that they are not divulging all of the ingredients! The encircled 18 on the front probably signifies sale only to those 18 years of age and above? Just guessing on that one.

What else? Well, it was beyond fascinating to see the notice on the back in several languages that this product was "Not for Sale in the US". You know, seeing as how I found this stuff on sale in the USA, and all.

What about you, DearReader? Are you seeing this stuff pop up in your locale?
*These posts of Abel's and mine were originally posted on ScienceBlogs.com when we were active there.

18 responses so far

  • physioprof says:

    So they're not even disclosing on the package that the shit contains this cannabinoid receptor agonist?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    of course. and until we get some analysis of the material, we're just *assuming* what might be in there. hey, it is possible this combination of plants from the mint family is just really good incense!

  • physioprof says:

    Sounds like getting some decent fucken weed would be safer than dicking around with this shit.

  • Stuart says:

    I live in Kansas, where the substance K2 has been banned. However, it was not banned on anything resembling science. All of the witnesses in this case were basically the police. Not one person said, hey wait a minute; lets find out what's in it, before we criminalize it. As a user of marijuana, I have no need for K2, because frankly, there is plenty of weed around. But this substance was outlawed only because it can create the same happy euphoria that marijuana does. science..not necessary in the Kansas legislature.

  • Mister me says:

    A couple of outcomes are possible here: 1. the oncoming barrage of synthetic herbal products could lead the FDA to abolish products intended to produce some personal effect without being reviewed for safety. All herbal suppliments and remedies would also be swept into this. 2. Natural and actual marijuana starts not to look too bad when compared against the unknown effects inflicted by man-made analogs. THC has been studied for decades, whereas these synthetics don't have nearly the same body of scientific study. Decriminalize the use of the natural plant, and the demand for the synthetic disappears.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Stuart, as I outlined in my original post, it is very probable that these products run afoul of the *spirit* of the Drug Analog law that was passed in the midst of the designer amphetamine era of the 80s. It turns out that this sort of thing probably has to be tested in some sort of legal proceedings to draw a sharp line. So for now it looks like the DEA is in a sort of watch and wait mode, probably to see how big the problem gets and also to understand a little more about the distribution of these products. I'm speculating, of course, no specific knowledge and indeed this regulatory part of the story is teaching me a bunch of things I didn't really understand before...a good situation to watch.

  • k55f says:

    Go to http://hightimes.com/classifieds/home and you will find links to all the manufacturers of "legal bud" with lots of wonderful claims for their products...

  • Eik says:

    So what happened when you tried it?

  • Synchronium says:

    DrugMonkey: A good situation to watch not only for the odd few people who may be interested on the internet, but also for government - if recreational drugs will ever be controlled like alcohol and tobacco, the legal highs industry would make an excellent model to study.

    The age thing is unfortunately only suggested as there's no law to prevent the sale to minors. You'll always get unscrupulous retailers though that will do anything for some quick $$.

    Also, you know none of those plants are actually in there, right? Most turned out to be something like Turnera diffusa and/or Verbascum thapsus.

  • marksb says:

    What I hear from and about people that are using "spice" "incense" is that
    1. It's easy to get compared to regular old garden-variety pot (which, as I live in California, is just weird)
    2. Rumor has it you "pee clean", so folks in the military, on probation, driving a truck or bus, or working for a drug-testing company are able to get stoned on the weekend (if you drive a truck and even are in the same room where pot is smoked you run the risk of losing your commercial license due to positive random drug test for two to three weeks)
    3. No doctor's script involved to go to the cannabis collective, which is good if you are buying for your high-school friends.
    4. Some people say they like the high better than pot.

  • leigh says:

    hey thanks, dude!

    the ingredient nondisclosure is not the least bit surprising to me. who knows which synthetics are in there- and what else there might be. an interesting anecdote i've run across from someone who is very much concerned about drug testing and still interested in the recreational use. this person stumbled upon an "incense" product that results in a positive test for barbiturate use...

    i will point out that the military has employed an assay to test for synthetic cannabinoid use.

  • Otto says:

    "Are you seeing this stuff pop up in your locale?"

    Yup: http://preview.tinyurl.com/2b9x3b6

  • Thanks for the referrals!

    Related: just came across a Vaughan Bell post citing a British paper on "legal highs" advertised as amino acids and such have been found to contain the now-illegal mephedrone (on which you have posted) and other illegal analogs.

  • Jonas says:


    You can buy it very easily from a number of webshops here in sweden. I havn't seen it in any actual stores (yet) but if it were to be sold in stores the media and newspapers here in sweden would go CRAZY. People in general here really don't like drugs.

    But as I have understood it most swedish smoking-to-get-high AKA junkies prefer the "real" stuff over the synthetic spice.
    Eventhough interesting to know more about it. Thanks.

  • dan says:

    is jwh 018 legal to import into mexico

  • [...] of “synthetic marijuana” or cannabimimetic products. They have been retailed widely as small (usually 3g) packets of various plant materials sprayed with a growing list of synthetic drug... which all seem to have full agonist properties at the endocannabinoid 1 receptor subtype (CB1). A [...]

  • [...] up* on the case of Eric Srack who was prosecuted for selling a synthetic cannabis product containing the cannabimimetic compound JWH-081. The Salina Journal reports: Jurors found Eric W. [...]

  • [...] The Monitoring the Future study has added the synthetic marijuana products (see here, here, here for additional) to their annual survey. Data on annual use rates are now available for the 12th grader segment. I have taken the liberty of graphing the annual use rates for a selection of the more common drugs in this 2011 dataset. What you can see is that these products are more popular than a host of drugs that have a considerably longer history. These packets of plant material spritzed with one or more full endocannabinoid CB1 receptor agonists (see dr leigh here, here for details) only really appeared on the US market in 2010 in broad availability. [...]

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