The street drug spice—also commonly known as K2—is one of the most popular drugs in the United States today among high school and college-aged students. This synthetic cannabinoid is often referred to as “fake weed” since the drug is made of dried plant matter sprayed with substances that chemically resemble marijuana. However, when spice is used it produces a high that can be more dangerous than that of cannabis. Alcohol is frequently consumed along with spice use, and the combination can lead to unpredictable and often unpleasant consequences.
Since spice is used by school-aged children in particular, it’s usually smoked in a setting with no supervision. When alcohol is also consumed, the user may underestimate the amount of spice he or she has smoked. This becomes a leading cause in accidental overdoses. Another popular behavior is to use the drug while drinking in a social setting. Specifically, many college students regularly abuse both substances in this manner.1
Young consumers are particularly vulnerable to marketing strategies used to sell synthetic cannabinoids like spice. Packaging of the drug is often eye-catching, with colorful foil packets and appealing yet misleading terms like “all natural” written on each package. Ultimately this causes the user to believe the product itself is safe to use. Once out of its packaging, the visual similarity of spice and marijuana can easily lead to expectations that the high will be similar and that drinking alcohol will increase the desired effects of what is mistakenly assumed will be a relatively mild intoxication.
Side Effects of Using Spice with Alcohol
The effects of drinking alcohol and using spice are unpredictable. There is no standard dosage, and the amount of chemical intoxicant varies by brand or by batch. Individuals may react in a unique way each time the drug is smoked.
The synthetic cannabinoids in spice closely resemble naturally occurring tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. However, the relative concentration of these psychoactive substances can be as much as 5 to 100 times the THC levels obtained by smoking cannabis. Given the extreme potency of the synthetic cannabinoids, simultaneous use of both spice and alcohol can quickly result in dangerously impairing levels of intoxication, and increases an individual's risk of overdose.
Some adverse symptoms of spice intoxication are:2
- Accelerated heart rate.
Due to the variation in strength of the chemicals, other symptoms are more commonly reported as the use of spice increases throughout the United States. These include:2
- Severe anxiety attacks.
- Violent behavior.
In a small number of cases, catastrophic events such as ischemic stroke and renal failure have been reported. Mixing spice and alcohol can lead to symptoms and behaviors that may be mistaken for delirium tremens—a dire consequence of severe alcohol abuse.2
An increase in several risky behaviors is also associated with concurrent spice and alcohol intoxication. These behaviors include acts of violence, driving while intoxicated, and unprotected sex. These behaviors often lead to self-harm or harm to others. Arrest for this type of behavior may delay medical treatment. The current protocol for an arrest is containment rather than transportation to a hospital unless the individual’s vital signs are unstable.
Treatment for Addiction to Spice and Alcohol
Prevention strategies for spice use and alcohol consumption are highly recommended since most users are unaware of the actual chemical composition of the cannabinoid components and to what extent the drug may cause harm, whether it’s used alone or in combination with alcohol. In addition to prevention, therapies specialized for synthetic cannabinoids like spice are used more frequently, and basic emergency medicine protocols are in development.
Researchers know little about the long-term effects of spice use alone or in combination with alcohol. More data is needed to fully understand how the body processes and eliminates the toxins in spice that puts individuals who require care at a disadvantage.3
Current treatment strategies for addiction to spice often start with stabilizing the symptoms and managing the side effects of the drug. Co-occurring mental health conditions, as they relate to concurrent spice and alcohol abuse, are still being studied.
Certain treatments reserved for managing the symptoms of spice intoxication or overdose will be inappropriate if the individual is also currently under the influence of alcohol. Benzodiazepines, which may otherwise be used for extreme agitation and anxiety in a spice abuser, would be unwise to use in a person also experiencing the effects of acute alcohol intoxication. This may be less of a concern in the event that the individual was actually experiencing alcohol withdrawal, in which case benzodiazepines would be more strongly indicated. A precise approach to prescribed drug intervention in cases of spice and alcohol co-abuse is complicated by the interactions of spice and alcohol with each other, of which little is known currently.4
Treatment for addiction to spice and alcohol starts with detox. Mental health professionals evaluate the individual to determine the most appropriate addiction recovery program. Once the evaluation is completed and the person is admitted for medically supervised detox, there will typically be ongoing assessment and oversight by a doctor as well as daily assessments by nursing staff to monitor the person's health and safety throughout the withdrawal process.
Detox programs typically offer a variety of recreational and therapy activities designed to enhance the person's experience in the program. After detox for spice and alcohol addiction, some people may be admitted to a longer-term treatment facility for a few days or weeks. Other people may enter an outpatient program for ongoing treatment, which requires meetings for several hours per week.
Recovery and Aftercare
The right kind of ongoing recovery assistance or aftercare for addiction to spice and alcohol depends on the individual's needs during treatment. Treatment is important for anyone struggling with addiction to spice and alcohol. Because of the heightened health risks faced by individuals with both spice and alcohol dependency, attempts to quit using these substances should not be made without proper medical supervision.
Hotline to Call
Please call our 24-hour hotline at 1-888-919-3845 or fill out our contact form if you need information about treatment for addiction to spice or alcohol for yourself or for a loved one who’s experiencing the effects of mixing spice and alcohol. If you encounter someone you suspect has accidentally overdosed from spice and alcohol abuse, call 911 to get medical help immediately.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Drug Facts: Synthetic Cannabinoids.
- Bush, D.M. & Woodwell, D.A. (2014). Update: Drug-Related Emergency Department Visits Involving Synthetic Cannabinoids. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, The CBHSQ Report.
- New Mexico State University. (2014). Wellness, Alcohol, and Violence Education.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). What Clinicians Need to Know About Synthetic Drugs.