Up in smoke

Spice is not so nice, according to the DEA — and soon it could go away completely.

In November, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced it was preparing to implement an emergency year-long ban on the key chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana, frequently marketed under the tradename Spice. The ban, which has yet to be enacted due to the resistance of small business owners, comes in response to national reports of people experiencing hallucinations, panic attacks, and seizures after smoking the “fake pot.” So far, four people have died in the United States as a result of smoking synthetic marijuana, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

For the time being, Spice remains legal to sell — and remains a hot seller in San Antonio.

“Oh, yeah, we sell a lot of it here,” said Anthony Rose, who works at Lazydaze Counterculture in downtown San Antonio. “It’s kind of cool for kids to buy it who want to try it and don’t want to get in trouble with police.”

Rose said Spice provides a high similar to that of marijuana, though it has a more “harsh taste.”

If and when the ban is enforced, it will make possessing, selling, and buying synthetic marijuana, and the chemicals used to produce it, illegal until Christmas 2011.

The Retail Compliance Association is opposing the ban, claiming the action taken by the DEA violates its own rule that no emergency order can affect the loss of $100 million in revenue nationwide. “They’re working to make felons of people trying to make money,” Francis said. “We’re trying to protect store owners. The object of enforcement for this should not be the retailers.”

More than a dozen states issued state-level bans before the DEA made its decision — Texas not being among them. However, in Leon Valley, the city issued its own ban, making it a fineable offense to possess or sell Spice. Leon Valley Attorney Mick McKamie said the risk of young children trying Spice was simply too great, and the city felt it was necessary to ban the substance. He expects the state to follow suit in the near future. “It’s become a potential problem everywhere if this comes into the hands of young people,” McKamie said. “There’s no limitation on age … and the reactions it can cause make it a public health issue.”

The American Association for Poison Control Centers reports that more than 2,500 calls to U.S. poison centers in 2010 were made regarding reactions to the use of synthetic marijuana. “These products present a health risk that is not worth it for consumers,” Missouri Poison Center Medical Director Anthony J. Scalzo, MD, said in a press release. “The products are meant to create a similar reaction to marijuana, but in fact, patients often report the opposite — a fast racing heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, and nausea.”

However, one organization says avoiding the possible dangerous side effects of synthetic marijuana is actually quite simple: legalize the substance that Spice was made to mimic. “The only reason people use Spice is because they can’t lawfully buy cannabis,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “If you don’t allow people access to the organic — which is safe — they will create a synthetic which is untested and unknown.”

St. Pierre said the feds should regulate marijuana in the same way the do tobacco, with use of education campaigns and a healthy tax system. Until that happens, St. Pierre said, “the law will never keep up with street alchemists.”


Synthetic marijuana cheat sheet

  • Synthetic marijuana ingredients are packaged in legal products, like Spice and K2, and marketed as incense with warnings that they are not for human consumption. However, opponents say the fast-burning contents can only be effective if one smokes it.
  • Synthetic marijuana contains chemicals that mimic tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the prime ingredient in marijuana that activates cannabinoid receptors in the brain.

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