A chemist with the Drug Enforcement Administration explained Thursday what is in the synthetic marijuana known as Spice.
Roger Ely, the DEA's supervisory chemist, spoke with KRDO NewsChannel 13 from his office in San Francisco.
Ely said alcohol, acetone, ammonia and hydrochloric acid are commonly used in the product that has been blamed for three deaths and more than 200 injuries in Colorado.
However, Ely said the concentration of chemicals is more dangerous than the chemicals themselves.
"Just because they're using ammonia and hydrochloric acid and stuff like that, that's not bad," he said. "Most of your drugs are using those types of things, or things a lot worse. The difference (is) that a pharmaceutical company is going to make sure that none of (it) carries over into the final product. We can't always say that here, because we have no idea really how pure it was or the conditions it was made under."
Ely said it's nearly impossible for chemists to keep track of Spice ingredients because manufacturers keep changing the formula. The number of formulas has risen from eight when Spice arrived in the U.S., to 57 this spring, he said.
Helping manufacturers adapt quickly, said Ely, is that the DEA is required to publish drug research in the Federal Register, a document that is available to the public.
"Manufacturers would know somewhere, probably between 45 and 90 days ahead of time, what the next thing is going to be that's going to be controlled," he said. "And they would stop using it, and they would immediately go out and try to find something else to substitute for it. How they're figuring out what to substitute, we have no idea."
Ely said formulas of Spice are made in commercial labs in China, and were first seen in Europe in 2008. In the U.S., the product initially appeared on the campus of the University of Kansas, he said, then among soldiers in Georgia. Ely said initial reports were that users appeared to be intoxicated and the product didn't show up in standard drug tests.
"Can you imagine having to do 57 different drug tests and test for specific chemicals in each test?" said Ely.
Ely said Spice arrives to distributors as a powder, and that they add alcohol, acetone and flavoring to create a liquid that is sprayed on leaves and herbs.
"It's a very haphazard, unsanitary method of application," he said. "A packet of Spice could have little or no compound, or it could have a heavy amount. We still haven't determined what amount constitutes an actual dose that will affect someone."
Ely said Spice manufacturing developed from legitimate medical research that studied how it affects appetite, mood, memory and pain sensation.