It has come under scrutiny from the Drug Enforcement Administration and a host of state legislatures including Arizona's, but the forces aligning against Spice and other synthetic drugs have done little to curb their popularity.
The DEA announced plans last month to ban five of the chemicals commonly found in synthetic marijuana and gave store owners and consumers until Christmas Eve to dispose of any synthetic drugs that contain the chemicals.
After that date, those shop owners and consumers will be in violation of the law, but only until a new batch of synthetic drugs produced with still-legal chemicals comes on the market.
When similar steps were taken to control the drugs in Europe, the moves spawned what researchers called a "rat race" for chemists to stay one step ahead of regulators.
"It's always a concern," said Ramona Sanchez, a DEA spokeswoman in Phoenix. "There have been more than 2,000 calls made to poison-control centers across the country."
Synthetic marijuana is generally sold under two names - Spice and K2 - and a variety of brands with names like "Dank" "Mystic Mountain" and "King Krypto." The material is sold as incense, and the packaging is clearly marked with a stamp reading "not for human consumption." But it is sold in head shops and smoke shops among other items people consume every day.
"Clearly, you can't protect people from themselves, but it became clear to me pretty quickly just in my discussion with kids that there's a stealth marketing campaign," said Rep. Matt Heinz, D-Tucson, who plans to introduce legislation banning the material in Arizona in the upcoming legislative session.
Medical use sought
Regardless of the name or brand, the production method is virtually the same. Producers order the chemical compounds from manufacturers, generally overseas, and spray the compound onto dried herbs.
The chemicals were first produced in colleges where researchers hoped to find a medical use for the compounds. Some have shown promise as appetite suppressors, for example, but the chemicals found footing in Europe as a legal and undetectable alternative to pot.
When the herbs are smoked, the chemicals bind to the same receptor in a human brain as the active ingredient in marijuana.
Spice opponents describe the drug as a more powerful form of marijuana, made with a chemical compound more potent than the active ingredient in pot. Those who have smoked Spice generally claim the chemically enhanced high is shorter and less intense than what they experienced with marijuana.
"I wanted to see if it was what people said it was," said Mark Walton, 41, of Mesa, who has smoked a few brands of Spice and said the effects varied.
Some of the variations can be attributed to the way the material is produced. When the chemical is sprayed on the herbs, some leaves might be drenched in the compound while others are barely touched.
But myriad questions about the drug, its many variations and its unknown short-term and long-term side effects are what concern most researchers.
The chemical compounds being targeted by the DEA can be altered ever so slightly to put them outside the agency's ban while still making them effective as synthetic drugs.
"If you're a consumer, you don't know what you're getting," said Todd Griffith, superintendent at the Arizona Department of Public Safety crime lab, which has tested more than 20 Spice samples.
"The effects, they aren't all the same. Some of them are not good."
Uncertain side effects
The effects of smoking Spice first brought the drug to the attention of Heinz, the Tucson legislator.
Heinz, a physician, saw four college-age students come into the emergency room in Tucson one night because one of their friends was experiencing side effects after smoking Spice. The student couldn't speak, his upper extremities were twitching and he complained of headaches and nausea, Heinz said. The student's friends were fine.
"They all smoked about the same amount," Heinz said. "As a medical provider . . . I wouldn't be able to tell you that you're going to have a crazy reaction, or if both of us would, or neither of us would. It's highly dangerous due to its unpredictability."
The drug's unpredictability and readily available nature is what prompted the DEA to take the rare step of exercising emergency authority to ban the drug for one year while tests are conducted.
After Dec. 24, none of the products legally sold as synthetic pot can contain the five chemical compounds the DEA will study, though many more compounds are available for manufacturers to spray on herbs and sell as "incense."
For those still interested in pursuing a legal high that mimics marijuana, the lessons of Spice prohibition in Germany might be instructive. After authorities there banned many of the chemicals used to make the drug, nearly half of the samples researchers seized contained no chemicals. Researchers believe the products were packaged and sold as Spice to keep making money and capitalize on the popularity of the original Spice.
by JJ Hensley The Arizona Republic Dec. 3, 2010 09:44 PM
Spice: Packaged like incense, smoked like pot
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