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

By Michael W. Savage
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2010; A01

In the small backroom of Capitol Hemp, a head shop in Adams Morgan, a worker dutifully arranges an array of ceramic pipes displayed in a well-lit glass case. Another clerk helps a couple of customers as they peruse a selection of bongs and vaporizers.

Stored behind the counter is another amply stocked product whose popularity is booming: "spice," the generic name for a legal "synthetic marijuana." Capitol Hemp owner Adam Eidinger said that in the 18 months since he began stocking spice, demand has doubled each month, and its sales now represent a third of his revenue. On some Fridays, he said, his two District stores can bring in $10,000 from the sale of spice alone.

In the District and most states across the country, it is legal to buy and sell spice, whose crushed green leaves are sprayed with various man-made chemicals. When smoked, the treated leaves can produce a marijuana-like high.

But alarmed by its growing use and questions about its safety, lawmakers in a number of states have begun taking action.

Last week, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) became the latest to sign a state ban. In March, Kansas was the first state to outlaw the product, followed by Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. Lawmakers in other states, including Iowa, Michigan, Illinois and Louisiana, are working on bans. Similar legislation has not come up in Virginia, Maryland or the District.

Gil Kerlikowske, President Obama's drug czar, said in an interview that the substance is "on our radar" but added that he thought state legislatures are dealing well with the issue.

But others decry what they see as a knee-jerk reaction from lawmakers, making the synthetic marijuana product the latest substance at the center of an ongoing debate about the merits of prohibition.

"We have never had any complaints or concerns from customers," Eidinger said. He added that he began stocking spice products after several requests from customers. "We always ask the manufacturers if there is anything illegal in the products. We only use the products we trust, and if it is made illegal in D.C., we will stop selling it."

At his shop, customers show ID to prove that they are 18 or older, then enter a room where they can study a sheet of paper listing the available brands of spice. For $55, they can buy three grams of K2 Summit, packaged in shiny foil. Those wanting a fruity option can go for Pep Pourri at $22.50 a gram.

Scott Rupp, a Missouri state senator, said he backed the ban for good reason. "We were getting reports from local law enforcement that this was exploding among the youth population," the Republican said. "We were getting reports of kids hurting themselves and showing up in the emergency room as they were sick from it."

The fact that spice cannot be detected by drug screening has also made it popular with other groups, including parolees, according to drug experts. Eidinger said many of his customers are in the armed forces. "They sometimes buy a $400 batch before going on tour," he said.

A lack of data and controlled testing make it difficult to determine the drug's safety. And there are no official estimates of its growing use. But there has been a significant bump in calls to poison centers concerning spice. Nationwide, the American Association of Poison Control Centers logged 567 cases across 41 states in which people had suffered a bad reaction to spice during the first half of 2010. Just 13 cases were reported in 2009.

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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