Feds banned synthetic pot, so what's the stuff head shops sell when you ask for spice?
Reporter: Claire Doan
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV): The Drug Enforcement Administration and the state of Arizona banned synthetic marijuana months ago. Even after that, the Poison & Drug Information Center has received hundreds of calls statewide on it.
Police say that’s partly because smoke shops are peddling synthetic pot while claiming they’re herbal incense as a way to stay one step ahead of law enforcement.
“Blaze,” “bliss,” and “skunk” are some of the nicknames for synthetic pot, but it’s more commonly known as spice or K2. It’s a mixture of herbs sprayed with chemicals similar to THC, which is the chemical compound in marijuana.
Spice may induce a mellow high similar to pot, but experts say it can be more dangerous. Since January, Tucson’s poison control center has fielded dozens of calls from people who got sick from smoking spice.
Sgt. Chris Widmer, a spokesperson for Tucson Police, said many people have gone to the Emergency Room: “They’re coming in with symptoms like high heart rate, nervousness, agitation, seizures.”
One father was so concerned with the long-term effects of synthetic marijuana that he called 9 On Your Side. Santiago Mijares said his 17-year-old son admitted to smoking spice for two years.
“He was starting to lose his motor speech. He looked more like being in a trance half the time when you talk to him or look at him. He was always sneaking off,” Mijares said.
Mijares said he went to the two smoke shops that his son said he frequented – JJ’s on Speedway and El Ondeado – and secretly recorded cell phone video as proof that the shop is selling spice to his kid without even asking for identification.
“I was not only surprised, I was mad. I’ve been taking him to the doctor’s. I’ve been taking him to urgent care to find out why he’s getting these horrible headaches,” Mijares said.
But many smoke shops are not selling spice – at least, not technically. Rather, the DEA said, suppliers have found a sneaky way to sidestep the law.
“What you’re seeing now is different stuff out there, where they alter it slightly to get away from the K2 or spice name,” said Al Laurita, Assistant Special Agent in Charge at the DEA.
Governor Jan Brewer outlawed spice in 2011 and DEA outlawed the same five chemicals in spice in March.
However, manufacturers were quick to adapt: They cranked out new formulas with only a single, different molecule. That means police cannot arrest anyone – users, smoke shop owners or manufacturers – without first testing the dried leaves to see if they contain the illegal chemicals.
TPD has 70 cases pending lab results.
Most of the different packages that smoke shops call potpourri or herbal incense have no listed ingredients, but many of them come with a warning that tells users it’s “not intended for human consumption.” However, many people who have smoked the brands claim the effect is the same as spice.
Some of the comments KGUN9 found:
“Got as high as weed … good stuff.”
“Finally, someone with some brains has made good use, to make such a fine legal product that stumps the DEA’s war on drugs.”
“Munchies, red eyes, dry mouth, stoned at ****… Def the best of the 10 plus kinds of incense blends I’ve tried!”
So KGUN9 went to the same shops as Mijares did, with our cameras rolling, to see if smoke shops know what they’re selling.
An employee at El Ondeado Smoke Shop said they do sell spice and that it’s legal. “It’s supposed to be. Other smoke shops I know sell it as well.”
When reporter Claire Doan informed that spice is illegal, she said it’s up to the manufacturer to make sure the ingredients in their “herbal incense” are legal. However, she couldn’t make an assurance that the potpourri at El Ondeado would pass any lab tests by police.
An employee at JJ’s Smoke Shop also said they sell spice, but said it was the “perfectly legal” variety and emphasized that the supplier is responsible and provides proof.
“We get the paperwork that proves they’re giving us legal blends that they sell to all the stores in town,” Andy Encinas said. But when asked for it, he said the owner had it and wasn’t around.
Encinas also said that the spice-like blends are easier to get since the ban, so much so that there’s now a price war.
“Every store has it because they know it sells. They know it’s legal. They know they have legal documentation to sell it,” Encinas said.
So 9 On Your Side contacted the manufacturers. We purchased five popular kinds of what smoke shops claimed is spice or like spice and contacted all of them by phone and email.
One company asked for questions and did not respond afterward. The other companies did not call back, much less go on camera.
However, they will soon have to answer to the DEA.
Laurita said they are going after suppliers as well as head shopsl: “We’re trying to identify who’s importing them into the United States. We are working with our officers in foreign countries."
Meanwhile, Mijares said the best thing he can do is warn other parents: "If these smoke shops are making it that easy for it to happen eventually there's going to be somebody out there who's going to buy it and they're going to die from it."
Authorities suspect that already happened, linking nine deaths in the United States last year to synthetic drugs.