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The growing buzz on 'spice' -- the marijuana alternative

The shifting economics of the marijuana trade suggests that new market forces, as much as law enforcement, can exact a heavy price on Mexico's drug cartels.

In the Washington area, where several stores stock spice, the National Capital Poison Center has received six to eight reports from people who had taken the legal drug since the beginning of the year, said Cathleen Clancy, a doctor at the center.

Manufacturing questions

Drug Enforcement Administration officials say spice products are manufactured both in the United States and in foreign countries, but little is known about how the products are made or who makes them. Wholesaler Web sites are secretive about where they obtain the product, and wholesalers themselves did not return calls seeking comment.

The packages containing spice state that it is to be used as incense and not meant for human consumption or to be smoked, a point reiterated by many who sell it. "Smoke inhalation may cause light-headedness and be harmful to your health," reads one package of K2.

On Internet forums, users have reported a range of experiences after smoking spice -- from feeling little to feeling the same kind of euphoria, increased heart rate or paranoia that marijuana can trigger. Some have reported more extreme reactions, such as hallucinations.

According to police reports cited in news accounts, one person in Texas suffered seizures after smoking two types of spice together. In Iowa, an 18-year-old suffered a panic attack and committed suicide after smoking spice with friends last month, police said.

"We're getting extreme anxiety in many patients, agitation, heightened heart rate and blood pressure," said Anthony Scalzo, medical director of the Missouri Poison Center. "I've done emergency medicine for 28 years and toxicology for 22, and I don't see that kind of effect generally from a patient who comes in having taken marijuana."

The DEA has begun to test the products, but it is difficult because several substances are being used to create spice.

Marilyn Huestis, chief of chemistry and drug metabolism at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said the chemicals had been developed by several university medical researchers to study the part of the brain responsible for hunger, memory and temperature control. The compounds, known as synthetic cannabinoids, mimic the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the ingredient in cannabis that gives users a high. They were not, however, designed for human consumption.

"These different, synthetic compounds are up to 100 times more potent than THC and have not been tested on humans," she said. "When people take it, they don't know how much they're taking or what it is they're taking."

Internet-fueled sales

DEA Special Agent Gary Boggs said the chemicals can be purchased in pure form on the Internet, which has helped them spread across the country. "We think there is potential for long-term, adverse effects on the brain, the lungs and the heart," he said.

Others are skeptical of the dangers. Peter Rugg, a writer for the Pitch, a Kansas City weekly newspaper, gathered with a group of volunteers last year to test the drug. One regular pot smoker said it was similar to weak marijuana, according to Rugg. An occasional cannabis user became nauseated. When Rugg smoked it, he said, it reproduced the effects of marijuana for a short time.

"I do think the reaction from some states has been a bit hysterical, but it seems to be the sort of thing we should really study for a little bit before we decide it is dangerous," Rugg said in an interview. "I smoked it a couple of times from different batches, and there was never a moment where I thought I was going to hallucinate or go and do anything crazy."

Lawmakers ought to take up more pressing concerns, he said. "Kansas and Missouri both have huge budget shortfalls but, despite everything on their plates, this became the number-one priority," he said. "To me, it was such a silly thing to get so riled up about."

Eidinger, who is also known locally as an advocate for D.C. statehood, said banning spice would simply push it underground. He also said that laws criminalizing cannabis have driven people to use the murky alternative.

Scalzo, whose Missouri poison center has received 60 calls this year from people who have used spice, urged caution.

"I'm concerned we don't know what's in there, or the quantities that are in there," he said. "Some people may argue you shouldn't ban something when you don't know what's in it. But when the public health is of concern, I think it's right to act."

Staff writer Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.

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