02 Apr Synthetic ‘Spice’ Blamed for Deaths in Russia
Synthetic marijuana, otherwise known as “spice,” has been a problem in the U.S. for years, but now it’s spreading across the globe. A recent increase in deaths due to spice in Russia is the latest story relating to the “designer” drug. Like in the U.S., assumptions that spice is comparable to marijuana has led many Russian users to think it’s safe, and by the time they find out otherwise, it’s often too late. The government is hoping to take action to reduce abuse of the drug, but the rapidly changing formulas used by illicit chemists make legislating against spice a significant challenge.
What Is Spice?
Spice (known by many names, including K2, fake weed, Yucatan fire and others) is a natural-looking substance that is anything but natural. The drug appears to be plant matter, reinforcing the comparisons with marijuana, but the dried leaves are inactive, and the drug has its effects only because it’s laced with synthetic cannabinoids. Although these designer chemicals are related to marijuana, they are not equal in effect and are often considerably stronger (up to 100 times more so) than THC, the active ingredient in pot. Among the biggest problems with spice is the inconsistency in its ingredients; simply put, one bag of spice probably won’t have the same ingredients or the same quantities of those ingredients as another bag.
Russia’s Increase in Spice Use
Russian authorities are warning about the dangers of spice, after the ongoing epidemic has claimed 25 lives and led to about 700 people seeking medical treatment within just a few weeks. Early in October, a refugee from eastern Ukraine died after smoking spice with her friends in Russia, and four others were taken to a hospital. Although most of the drug is imported from China, many believe that labs in Russia are now making it, too.
Both older and younger Russians are using spice. Valentina, in her mid-30s, was interviewed by U.K. newspaper The Guardian about her use of the drug. She was a heroin addict for around a year after graduating from university but managed to stay clean for more than a decade. She would occasionally smoke marijuana with her husband, until a friend introduced them to spice. Now she’s smoked for nearly two years, and along with her husband, she picks up her day’s supply from a dealer after dropping her kids off at school. Spice has dragged her back into the grip of addiction.
Withdrawal from spice can be incredibly unpleasant, leading to panic, palpitations, vomiting and depression as little as two hours after stopping the drug. For early stage addicts, physical symptoms are limited, but the depression can be overwhelming. Valentina struggled with this herself, not even realizing she was in withdrawal. She says, “One day I stood up and I understood with absolute clarity that the only way for me to escape from the awful life I was in was to murder both of my children, and then kill myself.” Luckily her husband was there to calm her down, but she adds, “What about people who don’t have that support?”
Russia’s Continuing Drug Problem
Russia has a big problem with drugs. It’s estimated that 8.5 million Russian citizens are addicted to drugs, with 70,000 dying as a result each year. State-run rehab centers are already over capacity, and private facilities are too expensive for most Russians, leaving few options for treatment. Nor is spice the first synthetic drug problem to hit the country, with the last one being krokidil, a heroin substitute made by boiling codeine tablets with other ingredients. The drug would literally rot the flesh of users and was intensely addictive. When codeine was banned from sale, spice began to increase in popularity.
Illicit Chemists vs. the Law
A big problem with designer drugs is what to do about them from a legal perspective. The drug makers exploit loopholes, and it’s hard to close them all. As Sultan Khamzayev explains, “The current system of fighting spice simply doesn’t work. Chemists need just three hours to change the formula, but all the necessary bureaucratic work to identify and then ban a particular drug takes five months.”
To counteract this problem, parliament is considering banning all synthetic smoking mixtures. This may seem like an extreme stance, but every time a specific formulation is banned, a new one takes its place, and each change in chemical composition can have unpredictable impacts on the effects, addictiveness and risks of the drug. In a sense, it might be better to cut them out altogether, so there is no grey area to exploit.
Designer drugs are a huge problem. They cause big problems in their own right, but they also hint at a much deeper issue with the process of criminalizing specific substances. With heroin being illegal, it doesn’t take long for a substance like krokodil to crop up, and when krokodil is stamped out, spice is ready to take its place.
The big problem is that making “substance x” illegal doesn’t do anything to change the most important thing: the underlying reason people decide to take “substance x.” Addiction itself is the problem, and the only way to tackle that is through treatment. You can play whack-a-mole with specific drugs, but emphasizing the importance of treatment and helping those in need is equivalent to pulling the plug and hopefully stopping the seemingly endless game once and for all. Russia’s overfilled state rehab centers are the real problem, and the true solution requires increased investment in treatment.
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