Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia

I can buy a cornucopia of herbal smoking blends: Space, Space Gold, Spicy, Spike, Smoke. But there is one blend conspicuously missing: the website’s namesake, Spice Gold.


There used to be countless websites selling Spice Gold, but that’s changing fast. Now when I visit Spiceworld420.com, I’m greeted by sizzling metal guitar riffs. A supernova explodes in my face, reading:

Welcome to Spiceworld420.com!
Bringing you the worlds strongest...
Herbal Incense Blends!!
Spice up and Space out!!

I can buy a cornucopia of herbal smoking blends: Space, Space Gold, Spicy, Spike, Smoke, and other so-called Spice-alikes. But there is one blend conspicuously missing: the website’s namesake, Spice Gold. Where the hell has all the Spice Gold gone?

About a year ago, reports began to surface about a mysterious herbal smoking blend called Spice. Spice was cheap, legal, and did not show up on any drug tests. It was made of all-natural ingredients and, most important, it got users really, really stoned. More and more people started trying it, and virtually everyone agreed it was like nothing else available, except weed—it was exactly like weed. An anonymous representative from Spice told me that last year Germany bought more than 7 million packages of Spice, the UK bought over 4 million, and Ireland bought 1.5 million. This was obviously only part of the global sales. Adding up the numbers, I calculated that about 800 million bowls of Spice had been consumed in 2008, almost enough to get everyone in New York City high 100 times over. Very impressive, considering nobody had any idea what it was they were smoking.

I decided to buy some, but there was a veritable spice rack of choices: Spice Silver, Spice Gold, Spice Diamond, Spice Yucatan Fire, and Spice Arctic Synergy, all in prerolled joints or family-size pouches. I ordered a couple of packs of Spice Gold, as well as a SPICE UP AND SPACE OUT! t-shirt. When my package arrived, the Spice looked and tasted like weird fluffy drier lint. I stuffed some in a pipe and had a toke. Before I even exhaled, I was stoned. Impressive! The effects were dizzyingly psychedelic and color saturated. I looked in the mirror and my eyes were completely bloodshot. I was Spiced out of my gourd. A part of me lamented that Spice did not exist when I was in seventh grade trying to get high from snorting NoDoz. I put on my Spice shirt and lay down to watch Soylent Green. I was overcome by the eerie sensation that I might have just smoked a person. This slowly passed, but I still had no idea what was in Spice. I went to bed, slept dreamlessly, and woke up in the morning still Spiced. Around lunch, I was able to function normally again.

A quick peek at the back of the package gives a detailed list of the ingredients, which look like they’re taken from a Wiccan tea shop: mugwort, Baybean, Dwarf Skullcap, Blue Lotus, Indian Warrior, Siberian Motherwort, and some honey and vanilla for good measure. Perhaps these legal herbs can produce a high of sorts, but Spice does not produce a diaphanous, pillowy chamomile high—it produces a sloppy gravity-bong pizza-devouring high. In a blind smoke test, I’m certain ten out of ten stoners could not tell the difference. Spice was most definitely not herbal: The makers were lying to everyone, and it was just a matter of proving it.

Chemists around the globe began a race to crack the Spice code. They extracted Spice, looked at it under microscopes, ran it though gas chromatographs, and subjected it to every sort of chemical analysis available. But its secret ingredient remained shrouded in robes of mugwort. Jumping on the failure to isolate Spice’s secret ingredient, Spice denialists began trolling internet forums: “There is absolutely no evidence that Spice contains some mysterious chemical, it’s herbal and anyone telling you otherwise is just trying to scare you.” As with those who deny global warming or evolution, the Spice mystery was a microcosm of all human stupidity. Some people refused to question what was smoking right under their noses.

In late December 2008, scientists at a German lab isolated the active ingredient in Spice. It contained an unresearched synthetic cannabinoid called JWH-018, which stimulates the exact same parts of the brain as weed. Overnight, websites withdrew their Spice and headshops grabbed it from their shelves. JWH-018 has never been tested on humans, but drugs in the same family have been studied on mice. Luckily, it was found to be completely nontoxic. Just kidding! It gave the mice malignant lung tumors. Seriously. Once ingested, the chemical is rapidly metabolized into a new carcinogenic chemical, which preferentially targets respiratory tissue. How this translates to humans is unknown. So I called John W. Huffman, the chemist who invented JWH-018, for a chat.

Vice: Hi, this is Hamilton Morris.

John W. Huffman:
Oh, OK, nice to talk to you. I was just having a martini with my wife.

Great! Have you been getting calls around the clock about Spice?

Mostly just emails. I did get one call from a representative of the US Air Force.

What was that about?

Because these pilots were smoking the stuff, which is not a good idea when you’re flying a plane.

Scary! It’s quite popular everywhere in the world now.

Well, yes. The thing is that JWH-018 is really easy to make.

How easy?

I mean, it’s a two-step synthesis from readily available materials. I’ve had undergraduate students make it. But there is absolutely no toxicity data on this compound. Who knows what the long-term effects are? I mean, I have had people over the years ask me, “Can’t we try some of your compounds on ourselves?” And I say, “Oh, yeah, you’re welcome to. But we don’t know if they’re poisonous or not.” They lose interest very quickly after that, and I think people who are smoking this stuff should lose interest quickly as well.

Perhaps you underestimate how much people like to get high. One published paper demonstrated that JWH-018 is metabolized into carcinogenic metabolites, which is very bad considering millions of people smoke JWH-018 each day.

Well, I might say, “Why don’t you stick to marijuana, because it’s safer.” Smoking a compound with unknown biological properties in humans is a stupid thing to do.

Have you ever tried synthetic cannabinoids?

I believe that I am intelligent enough not to smoke or ingest one of our compounds for which no toxicity data is available. Also, as far as I’m concerned, alcohol is a very acceptable alternative to various other chemicals.

Fair enough!

Days after my interview, Spice was further analyzed and discovered to contain a cocktail of synthetic cannabinoids in addition to JWH-018, including an Israeli compound called HU-210 that is highly illegal in the US. And so this Spicy tale comes to an end. Now I’m left wondering what the future holds—Huffman says that he has several other cannabinoids even more potent than JWH-018. The dose is so low it can’t even be seen by the naked eye. It’s really only a matter of time. By the way, a new “herbal” smoking blend has already been released by the makers of Spice. It’s called Genie, and if you choose to have a rub, perhaps your first wish should be for immunity to cancer.