Prison systems all over the world have to deal with illicit drug use, but smuggling has become even easier with the variety of drugs that have become available on the street. This made prisons an ideal place for drug dealers to distribute the synthetic drug Spice. Originally marketed over the counter as a “synthetic cannabinoid”, it is hard to detect and cheap to make. It also has a wide variety of potency, depending on who manufactures it. It is known for serious and wide-ranging adverse reactions. Psychotic episodes, seizures, and other problems are commonplace in Spice users. Spice itself causes many medical emergencies in its users, from injuries and suicide attempts to trouble with breathing and the heart. Reversing these effects has proven to be tricky. Although still more rare than opioid overdoses, authorities have begun to seek an answer to Spice.
In Britain, similar to the US, Spice has become a huge problem for both homeless populations and prison populations, and they have seen a rash of overdoses. Spice and other drugs, dubbed New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) by the government, are designed to imitate traditional illegal drugs. The mortality rates are steadily climbing. In 2015, they saw over 150 deaths from this class of drug.
Scientists and the medical establishment are on the front lines of the drug epidemic, and have set their eyes on an antidote for spice. While there are several options to explore, David Nutt, a former drug Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, says that a number of potential antidotes exist, including two antagonists – Rimonabant and THCV. THVC comes from marijuana, and will take years to get approval to study or extract. However, rimonabant already exists, in pill form, clearing the way for an easier answer to Spice overdoses.
Here’s how Dr. Nutt says it works: Spice simulates cannabis by acting on the CB1 receptor in the brain, but to an exorbitant amount, causing hallucinations, anxiety attacks, and physical problems such as trouble breathing. Rimonabant works an antagonist of the cannabis CB1 receptor, similar to how naloxone is an antagonist of opiates. The drug, initially investigated by Sanofi, is currently sold as a weight loss drug in Europe. Although the affects of the drug are known, Sanofi has yet to explore the options for marketing it as a pill that reverses these types of overdoses.
However, as Spice overdoses become more common, Sanofi has referred the matter to their Corporate Social Responsibility team. Because the drug has gone through three phases of testing already, it may not require a long time period to approval. However, at this point, though an antidote is known, it may be years before it goes to market, if it does at all. Before the drug is approved for new uses, contraindications must be explored.