Over recent months, the United States has been blighted by an outbreak of dangerous reactions to a variety of semi-legal highs – some of which have proved fatal. So-called ‘synthetic cannabis’ (which has nothing to do with the real stuff whatsoever) has led to thousands of hospitalisations, a wave of bizarre behaviour among users and a serious crackdown by local and national law enforcement. But despite frenzied efforts to keep the public as far away from the stuff as possible, every week continues to bring fresh reports of people trying their luck with synthetic cannabis and paying the price.

And it seems the chaos is not confined to the US side of the Atlantic, either.

New Names, Same Garbage

Legal Highs

Legal Highs

If there’s one thing you have to give the maniacs responsible for creating the stuff for, it’s being creative when it comes to catchy names and packaging. Known to most as ‘Spice’, there’s now a range of largely identical products doing the rounds by the name of ‘Spongebob’ and ‘Killer Smeg’.

The reason these have caught the attention of the authorities this month is because an apparent dodgy batch of the stuff in Newcastle has led to at least six people being hospitalised in the same area. They say a ‘dodgy’ batch, but to be frank every single batch of the stuff is largely as dodgy as it gets. That is, unless you’re happy to smoke a random cocktail of chemicals you’ve no idea about.

According to official police reports from the area, none of those admitted to hospital are in a life-threatening condition and are expected to make a full recovery. Nevertheless, the severity of their reactions to the drug have caused widespread concern that it’s only a matter of time until far worse reactions occur. Once again, the police have issued a statement strongly advising those considering these kinds of cannabis alternatives to reconsider immediately, or run the risk of being rushed to hospital…or worse.

The ‘Legal’ High Menace

K2 Synthetic "Cannabis"

K2 Synthetic “Cannabis”

The UK hasn’t been quite as badly affected by legal highs as the US, though evidence suggests that their use is still rife up and down the nation. Also referred to as new psychoactive substances – or NPS – they are engineered to recreate the effects of conventional drugs like cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine. In most instances, they’re sold in the form of a substance that’s largely dried plant matter, which is how for the most part they’re referred to as synthetic cannabis.

As for the highs causing a stir in Newcastle, it’s the classic tale of dried, crushed plant matter being sprayed with a cocktail of chemicals dissolved in alcohol. It may bear a slight resemblance to cannabis in its raw form, but it becomes abundantly clear what you’re dealing with when it is burnt. Along with giving off a smell that’s more like burning plastic, it has an unpredictable and generally unpleasant effect.

Unlike real cannabis, Spongebob is supposed to have an effect more closely comparable to ecstasy. Suffice to say, anyone that’s actually tried real ecstasy or MDMA in their lifetime will know after half a toke that what Spongebob delivers isn’t close to what it promises. Instead, it triggers a wave or unpredictable side effects ranging from the slightly unpleasant to the downright dangerous.

Still On the Streets

Blast and other synthetic substances

Blast and other synthetic substances

The British government announced some time ago that it was declaring war on legal highs and would do everything within its power to keep them off the streets. Which begs the question – how the hell are so many people still managing to get their hands on them? Or better yet, how are retailers still passing them off and not ending up in court?

Well, the simple answer in the case of Spongebob’s reign of terror in Newcastle is that it didn’t and still doesn’t contravene any legislation in force. The dodgy batches blamed for the hospitalisations are all known to have come from the same store – a shop by the name of ‘Hippy Green’ in Old Eldon Square. And as usual, there are no consequences of ramifications for the owner. The reason being that drugs like these continue to be clearly labelled as ‘not for human consumption’ and are sold as research chemicals only. Which in turn means that in an official capacity, they’re not being marketed as drugs and people are being told not to consume them.

Until legislation comes in that also rules out this practice, they’ll continue to be sold under every possible name and guise imaginable. And with each batch that comes out, it’s the same game of Russian roulette wondering what on Earth might be in there.

Prison Problems

Prison problems with synthetic "cannabis"

Prison problems with synthetic “cannabis”

Another enormous problem being caused by legal highs in the UK is the way in which they are comparatively easy to hide, simple to smuggle and difficult to detect using standard drug tests. Which makes it hardly surprising that they are turning up in prisons up and down the country at a terrifying pace.

Taking just one prison for example – HMP Northumberland – there’s a serious investigation going on right now after guards brought in a specialist dog unit to help find and confiscate legal highs. They found a ridiculous amount of ‘Spice’ on the premises, with an estimated street value that even those chairing the investigation couldn’t have predicted.

“A specialist dog unit came in on Tuesday, they went through a number of cells and found Spice,” an officer at the prison told the press under condition of anonymity.

“I was speaking to members of their team and they told me they had recovered enough to fit in two medium sized sports bags, with a street value of nearly £1million.”

Of course, prison bosses have strongly denied that the value of the haul came anywhere close to a million, but it’s clear nonetheless that they’re making their way into areas they really shouldn’t be getting anywhere near.

All Shapes and Sizes

Large range of legal highs on the shelves in the UK

Large range of legal highs on the shelves in the UK

The industry behind legal highs is nothing if not creative, having come up with a variety of different forms in which their products are sold. Some appear in the form of capsules filled with all manner of weirdness, others are sold as hard tablets and then there are those that are passed off as cannabis substitutes. In all instances, however, it’s the same case of lab-cooked chemicals being combined and processed into the final products, with not a shred of anything natural or tested as safe in sight.

But it’s the synthetic cannabis products that have authorities particularly worried, due to the way in which they’re usually packaged in bright, colourful wrappings of some sort with cartoon characters emblazoned on them. They claim they’re of course not marketing them at the young and the impressionable – evidence and common sense suggesting quite the opposite.

Legislation has been brought in to make the sale and purchase of legal highs illegal, but manufacturers keep finding ways and means to get around the law by changing their formulas, marketing tactics and approaches to selling them in general. Nevertheless, authorities continue to insist that the war on Spongebob and friends will continue unabated, hopefully leading to the dodgy stuff being removed from the streets once and for all.

“I have been a determined campaigner on this issue, calling for the Government to take firm action against those who make these products and those who sell them. It’s pleasing to see a strong stance is being taken in Newcastle and through excellent partnership working with the council and others it’s paying off,” read a statement provided by Northumbria’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Vera Baird QC.

“Local residents can rest assured this issue will remain a top priority for me and I will ensure our officers continue to work with partners and successfully use the new legislation to get those selling these substances before the courts so we can prevent people from getting addicted to them and putting their lives at risk.”

Staying Safe

Stay Safe

Stay Safe

Realistically, there’s only one way to stay safe when it comes to legal highs – stay away from them altogether. The reason being that even if you’re handed a bag of synthetic cannabis you’re told has been tried, tested and loved by thousands of buyers before, you’ve no way of knowing if what’s in your bag is the same as what was in theirs. The very nature of the production process means that pretty much every bag bought is to some extent different than the next and the last. So even if it was safe for them, it might not be safe for you.

By contrast, when you pick up quality cannabis, you know exactly what you’re in for. The legalization of cannabis would of course drive these markets out of existence, but chances are that’s not going to happen for a while.

But in the meantime, do yourself a favour and keep a safe distance from Spongebob.

What do you think about legal highs such as Spice and Spongebob? Let us know in the comments section below.