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Beauty and the K2: Synthetic Marijuana Dependence

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade’s photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty, prostitution and urban anthropology in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.


A year since I met her, Beauty smokes more K2 (a synthetic cannabinoid) than she ever has, about three to four packs a day, joint after joint, against the low concrete wall facing traffic.

For Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, she was in jail. Before that, a day’s worth used to be a half pack. Today, she empties all of her money on the grubby brown-green clumps inside shiny foil, $30 – $40 earned daily by taking rides, or walks, with men. To sleep, she stays with a friend in the neighborhood, fed by friends too.

A few weeks ago, Beauty went to jail again for several days, scooped up by patrols, on a misdemeanor prostitution charge. There she felt sick without K2, time spent huddled in her bunk or causing enough fights to get automatic solitary — the bing — next imprisonment.

“I felt like a junkie, like I was addicted to heroin or some shit. It was horrible.”

When the Department of Corrections released her, Beauty found her drug. All better.

Beauty released from jail the first time: BronxBeauty released from jail the first time: Bronx. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.

Still, the feeling scared her, reminded her of her mom: a crack addict who gave birth to Beauty in an Oklahoma prison. The 22-year-old hasn’t considered K2 anything to worry about (and still doesn’t, mostly), though she stays away from the “hard drugs,” crack and heroin, because of what she saw growing up. She knows how those destroy people, families.

In her mind, as in much of the public’s, K2 is something different. Legal, sold over the bodega counter. Just something to make you trip a little on the neighborhood’s main street, to make you slur and lose your words where grey sidewalk meets grey wall.

“Spice” and other herbal blends were marketed in Germany until January 2009 as substances purportedly exerting similar effects to cannabis, yet containing no cannabinoids. These products were recently forbidden in Germany under the provisions of the German Narcotics Law after they were found to contain undeclared, synthetic cannabinomimetic substances. The authors describe physical withdrawal phenomena and a dependence syndrome that developed after the consumption of “Spice.”

Case presentation and course
A 20-year old patient reported that he had smoked “Spice Gold” daily for 8 months. He developed tolerance and rapidly increased the dose to 3 g per day. He felt a continuous desire for the drug and kept on using it despite the development of persistent cognitive impairment. His substance use led him to neglect his duties in his professional training position. Urinary drug screens were negative on admission to the hospital, as they were again on discharge. On hospital days 4–7, he developed inner unrest, drug craving, nocturnal nightmares, profuse sweating, nausea, tremor, and headache. His blood pressure was elevated for two days, with a maximal value of 180/90 mm Hg accompanied by a heart rate of 125/min. The patient stated that he had experienced a similar syndrome a few weeks earlier during a phase of abstinence owing to a short supply, and that it had quickly subsided after he had started consuming “Spice” once again.


The authors interpret the symptoms and signs described above as a dependence syndrome corresponding to the ICD-10 and DSM-IV criteria for this entity.*

Beauty one year later: Hunts Point, Bronx
Beauty one year later: Hunts Point. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.

Beauty’s done no other major drugs and doesn’t drink. Still, she works a street circuit, nighttimes, for her fix, a dependence she never meant to get, one about which she didn’t know to worry.

Drugmonkey. “Synthetic Marijuana, K2, Spice, JWH-018 And, You Guessed It, Dependence.” N.p., 17 Feb. 2010. Web. 18 Apr. 2013.

* Zimmermann, Ulrich S., PhD Dr. Med, Patricia R. Winkelmann, Max Pilhatsch, and Josef A. Nees, Dr. Med. “Withdrawal Phenomena and Dependence Syndrome After the Consumption of “Spice Gold”" Deutsches Arzteblatt International 27th ser. 106 (2009): 464-67. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 3 July 2009. Web. 18 Apr. 2013.

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Cassie Rodenberg About the Author: I write on culture, poverty, addiction, and mental illness: I explore things we like to ignore. I also teach public school in New York City's South Bronx. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. FDMART 4:35 pm 04/22/2013

    I am sorry to sound like what she went through is fake but I just do not believe this article. In my high school, spice was the only available drug. Half the school smoked it and people in and around my group used it the most. From personal experience, no one in the 2 full years of using it was ever addicted. Smoking it daily for half a year then stopping was never a problem, for me or anyone else I knew. To this day I have no desire to smoke it.
    Of coarse, no one’s addiction is the same so she could be a very specific case. I am sorry to hear of her struggles but this article makes Spice seem like heroin or crack. Which is far, far from the truth.
    Myself, I graduated 3rd in my class in high school, accepted to college and to a full ride scholarship, and was captain of baseball and soccer. Far from the stereotype of a “user”.
    Please stop making the “spice” out to be the next crack!

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  2. 2. Micaela 4:48 pm 04/29/2013

    I am very glad you and the kids you knew never got addicted. You and your friends are a happy exception. I work with addicts, and addiction always happens differently – two kids with similar backgrounds consuming the same thing… and yet one is an addict and the other one turns out just fine swearing is totally safe.
    Beauty is not a specific case – she’s an example of what millions go through worldwide. There have been reported deaths from a ONE time consumption of synthetic marijuana. No, Spice it is not crack, yet it is VERY FAR AWAY from safe.
    Look at it this way, it may have turned out fine for you, but would you want your kids consuming it? I wouldn’t.

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