Cheap, easy to get, dangerous and not quite illegal, the synthetic drug spice has all the ingredients of a public health and policing nightmare. But as spice use spreads in Portland, responsibility for dealing with it shouldn’t rest solely with social services and law enforcement. Members of the community have an obligation to educate themselves about this drug and to ensure that they make their families fully aware of its risks.

Spice is a category of man-made chemicals that are sprayed on plant matter, which is rolled up and smoked. Users report a powerful, long-lasting high – and devastating side effects, such as seizures, paranoia, hallucinations, kidney failure, vomiting and a blank, speechless stupor.

One of the hazards of spice is that nobody who buys it knows what they’re getting. Makers of the drug are continually changing the formula to keep ahead of controlled-substance laws that ban specific compounds.

The low cost of spice ($10 buys enough for two to three joints) and its technical legality (which means that police don’t arrest for possession) all add to its appeal. But because there are hundreds of varieties of spice, doctors don’t know what to expect when they try to treat spice withdrawal, overdoses or addiction.

What we do know is that it’s critical to differentiate between spice and cannabis because – like it or not – societal attitudes toward marijuana have changed. The percentage of Americans who see cannabis use as risky has fallen, even as support for legalizing medicinal and/or recreational marijuana has grown.

But although spice has been marketed as “synthetic marijuana,” and it’s consumed like herbal marijuana, what’s in a baggie of spice is not the same as what’s in a baggie of cannabis. Available to anybody with access to the internet, spice is more potent and unpredictable than pot, with each packet containing chemicals whose makeup and effects are unknown to everyone except the manufacturer.

That’s a chilling scenario for parents – but one they can and should address head on by talking to their children, outlining how spice is made and emphasizing that it is a mystery drug that presents a panoply of health threats that we are just beginning to comprehend.

Research shows that discussions in which parents present accurate, credible information on drugs can go a long way toward preventing substance abuse by young people. These may not be comfortable conversations, but in a society grappling with an addiction epidemic, they’re a teaching opportunity that families can’t afford to pass up.