"It almost made me have a fucking heart attack – my heart rate went up to over 180 bpm and I thought I was going to die," says 18-year-old Rhys. "I was jittery and shaky for almost an hour after, sweating and shivering the whole time. It felt like a panic attack, but one that gave me a decline in my cognitive function for an entire month afterwards."
This is bad enough when you know what you're smoking; for those who use synthetic weed – like Spice – by mistake, it's even worse. But how, exactly, does one smoke Spice accidentally?
Since multiple US states legalised recreational cannabis, demand for the new breed of weed vape pens and cartridges has shot up in the UK. In the States, dodgy versions of these products are thought to be behind the recent spate of vape-associated injuries and deaths – and there's now mounting evidence to suggest that many producers and sellers of unregulated cannabis vapes have been topping up, or even totally replacing, the THC and CBD in their products with synthetic cannabinoids, leading to users getting inadvertently out of their minds.
Besides Rhys, nine students at a school in Manchester collapsed after unwittingly vaping spice earlier this year, while I found plenty more who were willing to speak to me about their own ordeals.
Sophie began vaping what she believed to be THC E-liquid when she moved back home after university and wanted to continue smoking weed without her parents knowing. After vaping regularly with one of her friends, they started to notice that the high they were getting was typically much shorter than they were accustomed to when smoking weed. Gradually, her friend's use of the vape grew more frequent, which resulted in him "freaking out" and coughing up blood. They noted the symptoms and did some research online, which led to them suspecting that what they'd been vaping wasn't THC at all, but something markedly more malicious.
"The effects ranged from headaches to just feeling generally shaky – and in a similar way to tobacco addiction, having a vape was just always in the back of your mind," says Sophie. "Obviously none of this was usual from just THC."
The gradual escalation of Sophie's friend’s habit is typical of Spice users, even accidental ones. Another vape buyer told me how he'd started out slow but soon found himself permanently attached to his spice vape, leaving the office every 20 minutes for a hit to stave off the nasty withdrawal symptoms.
Matt is a finance intern who's been a member of his local UK Cannabis Social Club (UKCSC) for four years. He was dubious about the cannabis E-liquids he'd been buying, so sent them off to a Welsh organisation called WEDINOS, which anonymously tests new substances appearing in the drug market, and has become the go-to tester for THC E-liquids. Matt's results showed that his liquids didn't contain THC at all, but a synthetic cannabinoid. Matt says he can no longer trust any seller of THC vapes, preferring to make his own. "It's sad to think how many will have purchased and used this stuff without testing," he says.
The reasons it's hard to discern weed from synthetic cannabinoid are numerous: E-liquids are almost invariably yellowish, and any flavour can be added to mask smells, making it near impossible to identify the drug with your eyes or your nose. Then there's the dubious provenance of the THC vape cartridges, which can be made to look like they've been manufactured by a reputable American company, but could have come from almost anywhere online.
Given that vaping cannabis seems to be a popular method of consumption among young British teens in particular, it's easy to see how someone's first experience with the drug could be with one of these tainted vapes. "Many don't even realise it's some random cannabinoid," says Matt. "A first-time user might just think that's how weed hits."
It's likely those selling the products have a much better idea of what they're shifting.
"I actually have a Snapchat dealer who I called out for selling synthetic stuff," says Jack, who's worked in the E-cig industry for seven years, mostly in vape shops. "But he said it makes money so he doesn't care." Though THC vapes are illegal in the UK, Jack claims most independent chains will "sell under counter if you know the right person". This allegation is a tricky one to fact check, but in Jack's experience at least, customers would come in almost every day asking for them, and his boss eventually decided to start stocking THC vape cartridges. When he also started stocking synthetic weed E-liquids, Jack quit.
There have been reports of dealers operating on Snapchat, openly labelling their vapes as Spice, and there's at least one online retailer that sells Spice-based vaping fluids. However, the demand for Spice products pales in significance to the demand for THC vapes, and Spice is much cheaper than extracted THC, meaning dealers and legitimate retailers stand to make a lot more money by labelling these products as THC and selling them to unknowing and often naïve customers.
The solution? For Jack, it's simple: "Legalise it. It's driving people to find blackmarket products filled with poisonous chemicals. If THC vapes were legal, there’d be no reason for the public to source from shady dealers looking for quick cash and not caring if they mess with people's brains for the rest of their lives."