Growing use of ‘synthetic pot’ worries parents, authorities
The drug causes hallucinations, paranoia and some users have collapsed with heart rates off the chart. But kids can buy it over the counter in Union County – legally. Over the past year, sales of synthetic marijuana – which comes in a variety of brands – have skyrocketed, here and across the nation.
In Union County, you can buy the designer drug in smoke shops, gas stations and convenience stores.
“It’s definitely on our radar,” Union County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Ben Bailey said. “It’s problematic for us because these designer drugs create negative effects on people, but they’re legal. They can be sold to anyone in any type of retail outlet.”
The most popular name for the drug is Spice, but forms of the specially laced incense are sold under a variety of names, including K2, Genie, Heavy D, Yucatan Fire, Sence, Smoke, Skunk, Zohai, Funky Monkey and Afghan Kush.
The herbs, which come in specially wrapped bags, are widely available and popular. An employee of Smoker’s Depot said that stores in Indian Trail, Mint Hill and Charlotte carry the brand known as K2, and it is “very popular.”
“We do sell quite a bit of it,” the employee said. “I actually sell more to older folks” rather than teenagers.
“We had reports it was being sold out of a local convenience store, so I went there undercover and found it near the register,” Lt. Mackey Goodman, head of the sheriff’s drug task force, said. “The clerk was as nervous talking to me as a dope dealer, telling me I could smoke it or make a tea out of it. When I hesitated at the price, he started to negotiate.” At that point, Goodman said, he felt like he was negotiating a drug buy in a dope house, but this drug was legal.
As the popularity grows, so have the incidents of serious reactions to the laced incense.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers says it received only 14 calls about medical problems tied to the incense in 2009, but as of Sept. 27, the poison control group already had gotten 1,503 calls this year, with most victims suffering a racing heartbeat, elevated blood pressure and nausea.
So far, Union County law enforcement officials said they have not been called to many medical emergencies tied to the incense.
“We’ve had two incidents I know of, where officers investigated crashes and other problems, finding the synthetic in the front seat of the car or in the person’s possession,” Goodman said.
All this from a drug that even has a warning on the container: “Not for Human Consumption.”
“We have been seeing (Spice) pop up for a little over a year now,” Barbara Carreno, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency spokeswoman, said. The drug “came over from Europe, through Internet sales, where smoke shops caught wind of their popularity and started stocking them.”
Designed for research
Synthetic marijuana developed out of a 1995 research experiment at Clemson University. Research professor John Huffman created synthetic cannabinoids, as they were called, to help in his studies on the human brain. His work in the field led to new versions of pain medication.
Huffman took the chemical composition for marijuana and altered two molecules, creating the new substance, which was then legal to use in research. That formula circulated on the Internet, Carreno said, finding its way across the globe and turning into a designer drug. Now, officials have identified at least seven different variations of the drug on the market.
The federal drug agency has traced manufacturers to China, the Middle East and Europe. While officials believe similar efforts are going on in the United States, they haven’t found a production facility. Even if they did, it’s not like anyone could be arrested.
“We don’t have any authority over these drugs, because there’s no federal law making them illegal,” Carreno said.
States take action
So far, 10 states have banned the chemicals, including Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky, and four other states have enacted administrative bans, according to Alison Lawrence, a policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Union County officials hope North Carolina will join those states. “We’ve been consulting with representatives from the North Carolina legislature, providing details to help in structuring a possible bill that could go before the General Assembly in January,” Bailey said.
The N.C. Police Chiefs Association and the N.C. Sheriffs Association also favor banning the chemicals. Actually, developing the wording so that such a ban would stick is tricky however.
The challenge in creating a ban is accurately defining the chemical that acts like an amphetamine, Lawrence said. A slight change in the chemical makeup creates a different product, which wouldn’t be covered under a Spice ban.
Any action would have to come from the state level, as the federal government is at least a year away from making a decision.
“We are currently in the process of studying Spice and the other cannabinoids,” Carreno said. “The process is fairly involved, as there are eight steps for us to go through, with several agencies.”
The federal study could take one to four years, Carreno said.
That’s too long to wait for local officers. “Right now, a 14-year-old could walk up to the register and buy it,” Goodman said.