Study Finds Spice Withdrawal Symptoms More Severe, Harmful Than Cannabis


Looking back through the past decade, there is already a storied history around the substance “spice,” a synthetic drug that was designed to mimic the effects of cannabis, and the potential dangers that come with using the substance. 

Now, new research from psychologists at the University of Bath substantiates some of those claims, finding that spice is more harmful than cannabis and that users are likely to experience more severe withdrawal symptoms when they attempt to quit. It is the largest study of spice withdrawal ever conducted, and it’s also the first study that compared the severity of withdrawal symptoms with those of cannabis.

Spice refers to a class of drugs known as “synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists,” or SCRAs, produced synthetically and usually sprayed onto an herbal material that looks like cannabis and can be smoked. It’s sometimes used as a cannabis alternative for people to avoid drug-test detection and sees higher use among homeless people and people in prison. It does act on the same brain receptors, though it is far more potent than cannabis, which often makes it more addictive and increases withdrawal-symptom severity.

The study was published in the journal Psychopharmacology. Researchers used a sample of 284 people who participated in the Global Drug Survey and previously tried to stop using spice. The participants also had used both cannabis and spice in the past, in order to accurately compare the effects of the substances across different measures.

The findings showed that more than two-thirds of the participants reported that they experienced at least three withdrawal symptoms after they attempted to quit, including sleep issues, irritability and low mood. The symptoms were significantly worse than the symptoms of people who attempt to give up cannabis, researchers noted.

Because the withdrawal symptoms were more severe, participants reported that it was more challenging to quit using spice. In addition to sleep issues, irritability and low mood, participants reported heart palpitations and a craving to use the drug again after attempting to quit.

Long-term Harm from Spice

Researchers designed the assessment to indicate how likely a drug is to result in long-term harm, asking about how severe withdrawal symptoms are, how long the effects last and the rate at which tolerance develops.

In addition to the reported, heavier withdrawal symptoms, participants also rated the effects of spice as more harmful than cannabis. They said the effects emerge quicker but have a shorter duration than cannabis, and they also reported that the tolerance to the effects of spice develop more quickly for spice, which often leads users to increase their dosage more frequently to achieve the prior effects.

Sam Craft is the lead author of the study and a PhD student funded by the Medical Research Council. He explained that, even though spice is originally produced as a legal alternative to cannabis, the findings of the study point to the drug being far more harmful, with a higher likelihood of users attempting to quit experiencing a range of severe withdrawal symptoms.

“It’s therefore important that greater effort is made to ensure that Spice is not used as a substitute for cannabis, or any other drug, and people experiencing problems with Spice should be supported with treatment,” Craft said.

Dr. Tom Freeman is the senior author of the study and director of the Addiction and Mental Health Group at the University of Bath. He added, “These findings identify severe withdrawal symptoms as a key clinical problem among people using Spice, and highlight the urgent need to develop effective treatments to help people quit.”

Researchers at the University of Bath have already spent some time looking at spice and conducting research around the synthetic drug. Earlier this year, they were awarded £1.3 million to develop a portable drive that could be used to give on-the spot readings for spice.

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