Aka’s: Spice, K2, herbal incense
What: Chemical compounds sprayed onto dried leaves and herbs
Aka’s: Spice, K2, herbal incense
Physical reactions: Confusion, agitation, racing heart beat, mania, hallucination, elevated blood pressure and seizures
Issue: Banned in many states, but still legal in Virginia
Of note: the federal Drug Enforcement Administration has announced its intention to temporarily ban five of the most popular chemicals sprayed on fake pot.
BRISTOL, Va. – In the windows of a West State Street storefront, the Grateful Dead tapestries and advertisements for the cheapest “spice” in town have been replaced – with one, sole “For Rent” sign. Up in Smoke, a shop formerly devoted to the booming cottage industry of synthetic marijuana, closed down as abruptly as it opened. But, despite growing pressure on retailers, police and legislators, selling the shiny packets of fake pot is still perfectly legal in Virginia.
On Thursday, state Sen. William Wampler, R-Bristol, introduced a bill that would, in effect, lump synthetic marijuana with the old-fashioned kind to be treated as a Schedule 1 drug in Virginia. The bill would make it illegal to buy, sell, possess or manufacture any of the various chemical compounds sprayed onto dried leaves and distributed as Spice, K2 or any of dozens of brand names.
It is one of at least 12 such bills proposed for this month’s General Assembly session.
Wampler became aware of the problem, he said, when calls started pouring in from worried parents wondering how their pre-teenagers could so easily get a hold of a drug authorities say is up to 800 times more potent than pot.
Because it’s sold as “herbal incense,” it is completely unregulated – there is no minimum age requirement. Furthering the appeal to aspiring teenage drug users, it’s sold in such flavors as “bubblegum” and “sex” and under brand names like “Scooby Snax.”
The chemicals – said to mimic the effects of marijuana – are manufactured overseas, mostly in Asia, and then shipped to the United States in liquid form, said Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Michael Sanders. Distributors buy it, spray the liquid on an herb, such as oregano, package it in shiny foil and sell it to head shops, convenience stores and truck stops.
“It isn’t your dad’s pot or your granddad’s pot,” Sanders said. “It’s really getting to be a really bad deal.”
Every batch is different, he said. It’s impossible to forecast how generous a distributor was with the chemicals.
“It’s like playing Russian roulette,” Sanders said. “You really don’t know what you’re getting and it’s different every time. Maybe they sprayed it once, maybe twice, maybe more. That’s why kids and young adults are winding up in emergency rooms.”
In 2010, fake pot prompted more than 2,750 calls to poison control centers across the county, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
At least two local teenagers ended up at the emergency room after smoking it and, in news reports from across the country, fake pot has been blamed for seizures, suicides and deaths.
Christopher Holstege, medical director of the Blue Ridge Poison Control Center at the University of Virginia lists the known reactions to the drug: confusion, agitation, racing heart beat, mania, hallucination, elevated blood pressure and seizures.
“It’s an interesting medical quandary,” he said. “I’d say we’re limited in our knowledge. What are the long-term effects? We don’t know the answer to that. There’s just so much unknown about it.”
Poison control centers started calling federal authorities, alerting them to the problem, Sanders said. On Nov. 24, the Drug Enforcement Administration released a notice of its intent to temporarily ban five of the most popular chemicals sprayed on fake pot. When their final ruling is issued, the ban will criminalize possessing or selling the chemicals anywhere in the United States for a year while federal agencies study whether they should be permanently controlled. If so, the chemicals will be placed alongside their natural cousin – THC – on the list of federally scheduled drugs.
The most popular and studied chemical used in the synthetic pot is JWH-018, created by a Clemson University professor in 1994 as a treatment for nausea, glaucoma and as an appetite stimulant. But someone with more deviant intentions got a hold of the recipe. A decade later, synthetic marijuana began showing up in American head shops and gas stations, mostly in the West. It began inching eastward and arrived in Southwest Virginia sometime in late 2009, then spread across the state like a wildfire, police said.
The dozen Virginia delegates and senators who introduced bills banning synthetic marijuana for this month’s session are an uncanny mix of Republicans and Democrats from all corners of the state – from Bristol to Lynchburg to Newport News.
Wampler’s bill contains an emergency provision that would make it go into effect immediately upon the governor’s signature – perhaps next month.
But some local retailers have already stopped stocking the drug. The clerk at the Country Boy Food Mart on Lee Highway said they stopped selling K2 because they thought it was already illegal – a common misconception, Sanders said, that was assumed when the DEA released the notice of its intent to temporarily ban the chemicals.
Bristol Virginia Police Detective Michael Danser said many Bristol stores have stopped selling it – but he’s not convinced that it’s out of concern for the public welfare. At least two synthetic marijuana retailers have been burglarized in the past several months, both times with thousands of dollars worth of the fake pot stolen, he said.
Spice, as it’s generically called, had become some users’ drug of choice, Danser said. When the drug is banned, he expects it will come to occupy its own little corner of the street drug market.