The Drug Enforcement Administration is using its emergency powers to make K2, Spice, and other "legal high" herbal products Schedule I controlled substances -- that is, illegal drugs with no permitted medical use. The declaration will take effect after a mandatory 30-day waiting period, and will have the effect of law for at least a year. When the waiting period expires, sale or possession of the substances will be a federal crime.
Specifically, the soon-to-be banned drugs are five designer drugs that mimic the effects of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The drugs are JWH-018, JWH-073, JWHY-200, CP-47,497, and cannabicyclohexanol.
"Legal high" products claim to be mixtures of herbs that can be smoked for a psychedelic effect. But the herbs listed on the package label often are missing from the actual product. Instead, the product contains a leafy mixture that is spiked with a designer drug -- usually one of the five drugs listed by the DEA.
The same product often is spiked with different doses of different drugs, making it impossible for users to know what they are taking.
Like THC, the active ingredient in marijuana and other forms of cannabis, these synthetic cannabinoids turn on the cannabinoid receptors (switches that trigger activity) found on many cells in the body. The brain is particularly rich in the CB1 cannabinoid receptor.
But most synthetic cannabinoids are quite different chemical structures from THC. And unlike cannabis, which has been used by humans for millennia, the new drugs have never been tested in humans.
The DEA says the American Association of Poison Control Centers has received more than 1,500 calls relating to products spiked with these designer cannabinoids. The calls came from 48 states and the District of Columbia.
The drugs appear to come from foreign sources. The DEA says that U.S. Customs in 2010 has intercepted multiple shipments of two of the drugs, including one shipment of over 50 kilograms.
For more information on K2, Spice, and other "legal highs," see WebMD's FAQ.