- 11 Nov 08
Incense, smoking blend or drug? Would the real Spice please stand up.
Cannabis is an extremely valuable commodity: an ounce and a half of weed is worth the same as an ounce of pure gold. The only reason this humble plant trades for such astronomical rates is because it is illegal. As we have reported before, prohibition also invites the sort of toxic contamination which has blighted Ireland’s cannabis for a generation. This combination of illegality and poor quality means that Ireland has become the unlikely epicentre of a commercial war between manufacturers of legal cannabis substitutes.
Competition is so fierce that most blends decline to list their ingredients for fear of imitation. The Spice range of legal smokeables is a rare exception in this regard, but amateur chemists have been poring over other blends for some time in the hope of identifying the ingredients. Though there has been a co-ordinated self-censorship effort on the part of manufacturers, the legal highs have established a massive market throughout Europe.
Before 2006, there was no market. Two decades of inferior imitations had left legal highs with a deserved reputation for headache-inducing ineffectiveness. When Spice arrived on the market boasting that it was the first alternative to truly work, a weary smoking public greeted the announcement with scepticism. One well-placed source in the head shop industry explained that sales were slow to take off. Initially, Spice accounted for 5% of weekly turnover. Today, its stronger successors, Spice Gold and Diamond, account for 70% of the weekly shop takings.
Startling sales figures seen by Hot Press indicate that a busy city centre headshop can expect to sell at least 8,000 packets of smokeable herbs per week. Weekly industry sales surpass 30,000 units nationally, and account for a turnover of around €1,000,000 per week. The Spice range accounts for much of this income. It can also claim credit for the boom in the smoking-blend industry, though credit is not something they would be keen to claim.
That’s because, according to the product’s manufacturers, Spice is ‘not for human consumption’; their now-defunct website illustrated the correct use: it is meant to be burned in a bowl as a room odouriser. At €10 a gram, that puts Spice firmly at the Gucci end of the air freshener market!
It’s such a transparent ruse that even the manufacturers have trouble remembering that Spice is only meant to be an incense. When they recently filed an intellectual copyright patent, they inadvertently added ‘smoking blend’ along with ‘incense’ to the list of product uses. Hot Press has seen the patent application, which clearly indicates that Spice is meant to be smoked. This has potentially disastrous ramifications for Spice’s UK-based manufacturers, Pysche Deli. It effectively spells the end of the Spice range, which will shortly bow out of the market it single-handedly created.
This faux pas was not in the same league as a recent New Zealand case where one popular party pill was found to contain MDMA – the illegal Ecstacy ingredient it was supposed to be aping. The manufacturers concerned are believed to be on the run from the authorities. It is doubtful that the demise of Spice will be as dramatic, but Pysche Deli are sure to be contacted by the authorities, who will doubtless enquire after health certificates for their smokeable mixtures.
Hot Press understands that the Spice range will be out of stock in most Irish head shops within a month; the manufacturers are currently in negotiations with alternative suppliers and apparently aim to repackage the product under a slightly different name to avoid the wrath of the authorities. By that stage, it might be too late. The explosion in popularity of the imaginatively titled Smoke, as well as the rise of the US import ZoHai, has severely eroded the share of the market enjoyed almost exclusively for 18 months by the Spice range.
The increasing popularity of legal highs in general, and herbal smokeables in particular, has fuelled a phenomenal rate of growth in the Irish head shop industry, which now comprises at least two dozen outlets, with new stores opening on an almost weekly basis. In the past fortnight, two new stores have opened in Dublin alone – a Nirvana outlet in Balbriggan, and a city centre venture, AK-47, named after the famous weed strain rather than the notorious firearm.
This rampant growth has not gone entirely unchecked, and the usual suspects have been beating the anti-drug drum; veteran drug warrior and self-appointed President of Europe Against Drugs, Grainne Kenny, has had some success convincing local councils to act against headshops. She has scored some success in Wicklow, where the council are attempting to prevent the opening of new head stores.
The State’s stance is more ambivalent. Faced with Grainne Kenny’s claims that, “Mary Harney has no interest in tackling illegal drugs” the government was moved to declare that it had no plans to outlaw cannabis seeds. Seemingly on something of a seasonal roll, Kenny then switched her attention to BZP, the party pill ingredient which has been the subject of increasingly negative media coverage: the Irish Independent reported that the government planned to ban BZP by next March.
Of course, the EU had already ordered all governments to outlaw BZP by this date. When you remember that Mary Harney outlawed magic mushrooms overnight with one wave of her ministerial wand, the government’s latter-day lack of prohibitionist vim is intriguing. Is it possible that the government sees legal alternatives as part of the harm reduction solution, or are they simply not paying attention?
The emergence of potent drug-a-likes have certainly impacted on the market, and sales tend to spike in times of widespread drought in the mass drug market. Though they are often on opposite sides of the political and judicial fence, the Gardai are essentially the backbone of the legal high industry. Every time they make a big weed seizure, the smokeable business booms. If they take pills off the streets for a week, punters will buy BZP instead. The net effect is not so much to take drugs off the street as to take certain particularly popular drugs off the street, and replace them with a mixture of other, less popular, drugs.
Whether it is down to official ignorance or blind-eye enlightenment, hard-up tokers should enjoy this legal limbo while it lasts. If you want to calculate when this uneasy freedom is likely to give way, you might like to use some version of the following formula: angry calls to Joe Duffy multiplied by sensational news pieces divided by science, expressed as a ratio of proximity to next election. Answers on a postcard to Grainne Kenny.