Teen Spice Abuse Treatment

“Spice” is an umbrella term used to describe a broad range of synthetic chemicals specifically designed to mimic the effects of marijuana. Like cannabis, most spice formulas contain some form of plant matter, but they are also sprayed with potentially harmful chemicals in an effort to increase psychoactive effects. Users then smoke the product in joints or via a pipe to experience a euphoric high.

Spice originated as a legally-available, unrestricted substance created from readily available research chemicals. Many of these precursors were unregulated under US law; in fact, most were sold for science projects, lab research, and other legal purposes.

Rising concerns about the safety profile of spice later led to increased regulation in the early 2010s. Teens and adults showed up at emergency rooms displaying serious side effects after using spice. After a small number of users died as a result of ingesting tainted spice products, the government restricted the sale of precursor chemicals, making spice effectively illegal.

Today, spice is illegal in most states. Yet teens can still order it online, and in some cases, may even be able to buy it locally through illegal sources. Teens who take spice risk serious physical and mental harm, including addiction.

What Does Teen Spice Abuse Look Like?

  • Though technically illegal, spice is often sold locally as “potpourri.” Sellers mark the packaging with descriptive imagery (such as someone smoking something from a hookah) and/or icons that identify it as synthetic marijuana.
  • Natural cannabis is almost impossible to overdose on. Spice, on the other hand, contains chemicals instead of natural cannabis, and overdose is a very real possibility. In fact, the chemicals used in spice can cause discomfort, severe illness, poisoning, organ damage, addiction, psychosis, or even death.
  • Spice is a designer black market drug. Manufacturers constantly evolve the formula by creating the products with new, unregulated chemicals (called analogues) that aren’t technically illegal, but are also untested, and therefore, potentially unsafe. While cannabis products may be relatively physically safe to use, at least in moderation, there is no “safe” dosage for spice mixtures – period.

Signs of Teen Spice Abuse

Blood Pressure Problems (Usually Low)

Rapid heart rate

Unorganized or messy

Circulatory collapse

Stomach cramping or aching

Nausea and vomiting

Incredibly creative


Paranoia and anxiety


Panic attacks

High or low blood pressure

Organ damage

What Causes Teen Spice Abuse?

Availability and Popularity – Research shows that people are more likely to try drugs if they have access to the drug on a regular basis. In the case of spice, its illegal status does nothing to prevent it from being sold in local convenience stores, at clubs, and among individual people. Manufacturers have become experts at packaging spice in a way that ensures it is sold as a “technically legal” product, leading to widespread availability. Teens may see this availability and the legal status of the product (even if questionable) as proof the drug is safe to use.

Some teens turned to synthetic marijuana because they believe it to be safer and more reliable than smoking real cannabis. Others use it because there is no age restriction on purchasing it, unlike alcohol and cigarettes. Teens are far more likely to use spice of their friends use it or if it improves their social status – and the undeveloped nature of their prefrontal cortex means they’re much more likely to become addicted when they do.

Mental Health Problems – Teens who suffer from disorders like anxiety, depression, PTSD, ADHD, and borderline personality disorder are much more likely to turn to drugs than their peers. In most cases, drug use begins as a form of self medication; teens use to soothe negative emotions, but quickly find they need to increase the dose to gain the same effect. Because they are unaware of the negative side effects of spice, this may seem no different than picking up a packet of Advil at the local convenience store when they have a headache.

The bigger issue is that teens who cope with drugs often don’t get the help they need. Spice can’t fix mental health problems, and teens who self-medicate are at a much a higher risk of escalating mental health issues that lead to hospitalization or even suicide.

Unfortunate Circumstances – Teens are at a much higher risk for stress related disorders than any other age group in America today. The correlation between stress, mental health disorders, and addiction makes an inexperienced teen much more likely to turn to a drug like spice when life circumstances become unstable or even chaotic. Living in poverty, enduring any form of abuse, being bullied at school, losing a loved one, or watching parents divorce may increase the risk for the teen to turn to drugs like spice to cope with stress and pain.

Predisposition – Teens who have a parent, grandparent or other close relative with a history of addiction may be genetically predisposed to developing an addiction themselves. Some are more likely to use in the first place, while others have genetic differences in metabolism that cause them to process the drug faster, meaning they build tolerance at a much faster rate. Still, predisposition does not guarantee that your teen will become addicted – it just indicates a higher overall risk.

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of senior high school students used spice in 2012


patients visited the ER for spice symptoms in 2011


of all patients visiting the ER after taking spice are teens

How Can I Help My Teen with Spice Abuse?

Don’t Blame Them For the Addiction – Every addiction begins with the choice to use drugs, but that choice is often inspired from an inability to cope with negative emotions or stressful influences in everyday life. When you shame them for their addiction, you erase those potentially critical influences from the equation; this may force them further toward the drug instead of further away. It also raises the risk that they won’t receive help for what led to addiction in the first place, such as undiagnosed mental health disorders or the aftereffects of physical and emotional trauma.

Be cautious of how you talk to your teen about addiction. Shaming and judging them for their behavior is not the same as holding them accountable with love. Anything that alienates them further away from you will only serve to destroy your ability to help them. Understand and accept that addiction is where they are right now, no matter how they got there – and what matters most is helping them commit to fixing the problem.

Find Ways to Support Their Recovery – “Recovery” is really an umbrella term. It refers to a wide variety of treatments, techniques, and lifestyle changes that lead to healing and sobriety. Your job is to to find ways to support them in that recovery as they evolve and grow.

It’s important to recognize that the exact definition of recovery can be different for every teen; what works for one may or may not work for another. Some teens find Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous helpful. Others find AA and NA too triggering and choose individual therapy and self-reflection instead. What’s best for your teen is whatever helps them overcome their addiction and move on to become a healthy, well-adjusted person.

Help Them Establish Healthier Coping Mechanisms & Lifestyle Changes – As a parent, your goal is to empower your teen and become an ally in their journey to sobriety, and this process can help you bond – but it isn’t always easy. As your teen re-learns how to live life without drugs, they may wander aimlessly from one goal to another, but they will eventually find their path forward.

In the meantime, parents can help teens find ways to handle cravings, improve their mental health status, live healthier lives, develop healthier coping mechanisms, and even reduce the risk of relapse – or bounce back faster when one occurs.

Start by focusing on your own life and your own wellness. Set an example for your teen by taking care of your mental and physical wellness through healthy diet, regular exercise, sober living, stress management, and individual therapy. By doing so, you show them it’s possible to not only heal, but also live a sober life full of richness, fun, and enjoyment.

Encourage your teen to make similar changes in their own lives, too. Help them learn how to get enough sleep, how to eat healthy meals, or even how to communicate when they’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. Pay attention to how they’re coping, and keep a judgement-free dialogue open with you. When they’re struggling, you want them to feel comfortable with coming to you to tell you so you can help prevent a relapse.

What Types of Teen Spice Abuse Treatment Are Available?

True recovery doesn’t happen overnight; there is no magic pill or treatment that will restore your teen’s wellness instantly. Teens must first commit to no longer using spice, and they must learn how to uphold that commitment for life. At first, this may seem overwhelming or even impossible. With the right support, most teens do find their stride, and sober living becomes less of a burden or obstacle and more of an incredible opportunity to live a full, happy life.

Teen spice abuse treatment starts with support services to help teens withdraw or detox, including recognizing they have a problem in the first place. Sometimes, this starts with a simple conversation at home, but some teens are resistant to help. Paradigm’s experts can help you find ways to show your teen why their spice use is unhealthy and self-destructive.

Supervised Detox

While spice withdrawal doesn’t usually cause potentially fatal withdrawal symptoms, it certainly can cause extreme emotional or mental withdrawal symptoms, like panic attacks and severe depression. Once your teen accepts that they have a problem, medically-supervised detoxification ensures they have the right physical and mental support to stop without further risking their own health.

Supervised Care

Most treatment options for spice abuse occur within a residential facility or on an outpatient basis (e.g., through clinics, addiction services organizations, or outside programs). While outpatient care can be very helpful, inpatient care during the first few critical weeks often has a much higher success rate because teens are removed from daily stressors. This allows the teen to focus wholly on their own healing, all while ensuring access to 24/7 support.

Inpatient and outpatient treatment programs are designed to provide long-term care (30 to 90 days or longer). But teens don’t simply graduate out and back into everyday life after they reach the 30 or 90-day mark; instead, they become alumni and transfer into aftercare services for longer-term sober living support. This is a critical facet of staying sober.

When teens spend time with us in one of our residential care centers, they benefit from on-the-spot support as everyday struggles arise. If they’re having a hard time with cravings, unpleasant emotions, or even just boredom, a counselor can address it on the spot. Because Paradigm is a drug-free environment, the risk of a relapse is much lower.

Therapy & Other Recovery Options

At Paradigm San Francisco, we use a variety of treatment methods to help teens stop using spice for good. Options are customized to the needs of the teen, but may include group therapy, individual therapy, counseling, mental health treatment, education, and even outside options like equine therapy and art therapy. The goal is to help your teen learn how to manage their thoughts and cravings while re-teaching them how to regulate emotions to prevent relapse.

Teen Spice Abuse Treatment at Paradigm San Francisco

At Paradigm San Francisco, teen spice abuse treatment often follows a similar path to teen marijuana abuse treatment (with a few key differences). Our first step is always to learn about your teen and how they feel about stopping spice, including what they see as their personal barriers to sobriety. Then, we provide tailored support to help them discontinue the drug while also managing problematic side effects, such as paranoia or depression. When staying sober becomes difficult – often when the reality of daily life creeps in – we’re right there, by your teen’s side, to provide comfort, guidance, and protection.

Working the Program

Every teen who comes to Paradigm San Francisco has their own unique program to work while they’re here. The initial first few days of this program are often about figuring out what’s best for them and what will move forward. Then, therapists work closely with the teen to address thoughts, behaviors, and triggers supporting their addiction – including irrational thinking, mental health disorders, and misguided assumptions about spice. The goal is to support teens in becoming better able to self-regulate their thoughts and stay sober long-term once they leave.

Learning to Cope

Staying at Paradigm San Francisco isn’t only about staying sober. Teens also need to re-learn how to have fun, socialize, and experience the world without the help of spice. At Paradigm, we encourage teens to develop hobbies and spend time doing what they love, especially in the creative and physical realm. Daily activities like playing music, creating art, or traveling to a local ranch to ride horses help teens re-discover who they really are while also contributing to their well-being. This journey to self-discovery is a critical element of recovery. In many cases, it also leads teens to figure out what they want to do long-term after treatment at Paradigm San Francisco is over.

Our son was there for 60+ days and it may have saved his life. He went there when he was 18 and an addict. After getting the drugs out of his system, he had intense therapy of all types, individual, group, AA meetings, and with family (we'd visit on weekends). The therapists were amazing for our son and he made life-changing progress and left with countless tools to help him in his future.

– Ben.

Frequently Asked Questions About Teen Spice Abuse

If there are legal forms of spice, is it really that dangerous?

While the jury is still out on just how dangerous cannabis is for teens, we have decades of research available to tell us that most synthetic marijuana derivatives carry a significantly high risk for problems. In fact, scientists first created these chemicals in an effort to identify the benefits of cannabis and create synthetic options for patients – but they are not approved for recreational or pharmacological use.

Just because something is legal does not mean it is safe to use as you see fit. Alcohol and opiates, for example, are legal, but if you use them too much or too often, they can cause serious illness, addiction, and even death. It’s also important to remember spice exists in a legal grey area mostly due to regulations that prevent the government from blanket banning newly created or identified chemical compounds. This is essentially just a legal loophole, not an indication the drug is safe for humans to use.

Remember that spice isn’t marijuana even if it’s called synthetic marijuana by the people who sell it to you. Spice produces a much stronger high with far more side effects, some of which can include permanent damage or even death.

What does spice look like?

Spice most often looks like plant matter, and it may even look similar to cannabis or tobacco. Some mixtures contain plant material sourced from harmless plants, while others are made with dehydrated cellulose that simply looks like plant material, but is actually synthetic. These pieces are sprayed with synthetic marijuana chemicals, packed into baggies, and sold on the black market or within head shops across the United States.

Not sure if you have spice or real potpourri – or maybe even kitchen spices? Look for the brand name on the package and the design. Many spice producers package their products in a way that clearly differentiates it from everyday spices; the baggie will say “not for human consumption.” Suspicious brand names, like “spicy smoke,” or images of someone smoking, are one of the most common indicators the product may really be a drug.

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