Spice Withdrawal Symptoms More Severe than Cannabis, Study Finds
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The withdrawal symptoms from spice, which contains synthetic drugs that mimic the effects of cannabis, are more severe than those for cannabis, according to new research from scientists at the University of Bath.
Published in the journal Psychopharmacology, the investigation also found that spice is more harmful than cannabis overall, with spice users developing tolerance to the drug’s effects at a much faster rate.
In light of these results, the researchers say that greater efforts need to be made to ensure that spice is not used being used as a substitute for cannabis, and that spice users have appropriate avenues for support and treatment made available to them.
Spice users report more withdrawal symptoms
Spice, also sometimes known by the street name K2, is the colloquial name for a class of drugs known as synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists, or SCRAs. These drugs act on the same brain receptors as cannabis, but they are far more potent; tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is only a partial CB1 receptor agonist, whereas SCRAs are typically full agonists and can produce effects between 2 and 100 times stronger than THC.
SCRAs are typically made in powder form, which is then dissolved in solvent and sprayed onto inert herbal material so that it can be smoked like a cannabis joint. While there is overlap between users of SCRAs and cannabis, SCRAs are not commonly detected in urine drug screens, and so drugs like spice have been treated almost like an alternative to cannabis, which is routinely tested for.
In this new study, the University of Bath researchers studied data from the 2015 and 2016 Global Drug Survey to characterize the withdrawal symptoms profile of SCRAs and to compare the effects of SCRAs versus high-potency high potency herbal cannabis.
From the anonymized GDS data, the researchers identified respondents who had used high-potency cannabis at some point in their lifetime, had used SCRAs more than 10 times in the past 12 months, and had attempted to quit SCRAs at least once before. In total, 284 respondents met these criteria, making this study the largest study of spice withdrawal ever conducted and the first to compare the severity of symptoms with cannabis.
In the survey assessments, participants were asked to indicate how frequently they used these drugs and how much they would typically use in a session. Questions were also asked to determine the drug’s effects, including how quickly tolerance to SCRAs developed as well as the type and severity of withdrawal symptoms experienced when trying to quit.
Participant reporting consistently indicated that SCRAs produced effects that are more harmful than cannabis, leading to a greater liability for problematic use. Specifically, SCRAs were rated as having fast onset times but a shorter duration of effects, with tolerance to these effects building up at a faster rate than tolerance to cannabis.
In terms of withdrawal, SCRAs withdrawal symptoms were experienced at lower levels of use than with natural cannabis, and generally appeared to include more physical symptoms. The most frequent withdrawal symptoms – sleep issues (59 percent), irritability (55 percent) and low mood (54 percent) – were similar between the two drugs. However, SCRAs users also reported additional symptoms such as sweating, heart palpitations, and shaking.
High frequency and quantity linked to significant withdrawal
The researchers were also interested in examining whether the severity of this symptom trended with higher quantities or frequency of SCRAs use.
They found that withdrawal symptoms were more likely to occur in those with a greater exposure to SCRAs. Compared to those who used SCRAs 11-50 times in the past 12 months, respondents who used the drug more than 50 times reported, on average, an additional withdrawal symptom when trying to quit. For every additional gram of SCRAs used, the typical number of withdrawal symptoms reported also increased by around 13 percent.
“Although originally produced as a legal alternative to cannabis, our findings show that Spice is a far more harmful drug and people attempting to quit are likely to experience a range of severe withdrawal symptoms,” commented lead author Sam Craft, a PhD student in the university’s Department of Psychology, in a statement.
“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.”
Given that spice is sometimes used to get around drug screening measures, the researchers say that policies directed at discouraging cannabis use may be inadvertently leading to people using this more harmful drug. As a result, they recommend that prevention messages aimed at cannabis users should also explicitly discourage against SCRA use. Additionally, they say that research should be conducted to address current challenges in the clinical management of SCRA-related issues, and to help minimize the harms associated with use.
Dr Tom Freeman, senior author and director of the Addiction and Mental Health Group at the University of Bath said: “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.”
The study also notes several limitations, such as the fact that the survey population did not include people in prison or those experiencing homelessness – two groups that the researchers say are known to use SCRAs and that are expected to have the riskiest use patterns. Since the assessment relies on self-reporting, there is also a chance that responses will be subject to recall bias. Still, the researchers believe that the high number of SCRA withdrawal symptoms captured by the survey results are a strong indicator of the potential severity of this issue.