Virginia may be next state to ban marijuana-like 'spice'

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2010; 8:02 PM

RICHMOND - This fall, Leesburg Police Chief Joseph R. Price made an usual request of a half-dozen convenience stores in town: Stop selling a legal, but potentially harmful, product packaged to look like incense.

Soon it might not be just a request.

No fewer than eight state lawmakers have filed bills for next month's legislative session that would ban the substance in Virginia.

The dried herbs sprayed with chemicals - known as synthetic marijuana, K2 or spice - have been found in tobacco shops and gas stations in Northern Virginia, schools in Hampton Roads, even makeshift storefronts in southwest Virginia after a ban in neighboring Tennessee.

"It's rapidly becoming a problem throughout the state," said Sen. Mark R. Herring (D-Loudoun), who serves on the state's Substance Abuse Services Council and introduced one of the bills. "When people find out how dangerous it is, how quickly it's spread, they agree something needs to be done."

Spice is supposed to provide effects similar to those from marijuana - sleepiness, relaxation and lowered blood pressure - but some users have reported anxiety, a racing heartbeat, nausea and vomiting. There have been some cases of hallucinations, seizures, unconsciousness and suicide.

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

"It's dangerous,'' said Edward Puccio, an emergency room doctor at Inova Loudoun Hospital who has treated a handful of spice cases this year. "We don't know all the risks because it's never been studied."

Spice is just the latest drug - homegrown or laboratory-concocted - that bills itself as a legal high. Eventually such drugs are barred, but only after the law catches up.

This year, Kansas became the first state to ban spice. A dozen states followed suit. Now Virginia has taken notice.

It's a rare issue, chemical or otherwise, that brings Democrats and Republicans, senators and delegates together in Virginia's divided General Assembly. But spice has managed to do just that.

This month, the Virginia State Crime Commission recommended criminalizing the drug but declined to suggest specific penalties for possession or use of it.

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