9 On Your Side Investigation
Hundreds of people getting sick from illegal 'spice'
230 spice users called poison control centers in Arizona in 2012
Reporter: Claire Doan
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV): The Drug Enforcement Administration and the state of Arizona banned synthetic marijuana months ago. Even after that, the Poison & Drug Information Center has received hundreds of calls statewide on it.
Police say that’s partly because smoke shops are peddling synthetic pot while claiming they’re herbal incense as a way to stay one step ahead of law enforcement.
Spice is a mixture of herbs sprayed with chemicals similar to THC, which is the chemical compound in marijuana.
Spice may induce a mellow high similar to pot, but experts say it can be more dangerous. Since January, Pima County has received 68 calls from those who ingested spice, while statewide 230 calls have come into the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center.
Dr. Mazda Shirazi, the director of Tucson’s center, said these figures are conservative; multiplying it by at least three times is more indicative of the overall number of users, to also include those who may be smoking spice but not reporting it.
“They either have a seizure or they become psychotic or start acting out of normal, so it becomes a concern,” Shirazi explained. “It seems much more potent than marijuana. We think the population using it does not have a handle on how much to use.”
One father was so concerned with the long-term effects of synthetic marijuana that he called 9 On Your Side. Santiago Mijares said his 17-year-old son admitted to smoking spice for two years.
“He was starting to lose his motor speech. He looked more like being in a trance half the time when you talk to him or look at him. He was always sneaking off,” Mijares said.
But many smoke shops are not selling spice – at least, not technically. Rather, the DEA said, suppliers have found a sneaky way to sidestep the law.
“What you’re seeing now is different stuff out there, where they alter it slightly to get away from the K2 or spice name,” said Al Laurita, Assistant Special Agent in Charge at the DEA.
The unknown chemicals make it tougher for doctors to treat too.
Arizona Representative Dr. Matt Heinz said, “When you don’t know what someone has taken and what they ingested, what they’re under the influence of – it certainly complicates caring for patients.”
Doctors are also alarmed because nobody knows the long-term effects of spice.
“When you ingest these chemicals, they can have long-term effects potentially on brain chemistry that we don’t have any ways to predict at this time,” Heinz said.
Governor Jan Brewer outlawed spice in 2011 and DEA outlawed the same five chemicals in spice in March.
However, manufacturers were quick to adapt: They cranked out new formulas with only a single, different molecule. That means police cannot arrest anyone – users, smoke shop owners or manufacturers – without first testing the dried leaves to see if they contain the illegal chemicals.
TPD has 70 cases pending lab results.
Most of the different packages that smoke shops call potpourri or herbal incense have no listed ingredients, but many of them come with a warning that tells users it’s “not intended for human consumption.” However, many people who have smoked the brands claim the effect is the same as spice.
Laurita said they are going after suppliers as well as head shops: “We’re trying to identify who’s importing them into the United States. We are working with our officers in foreign countries."
Heinz is pushing a bill that would impose sanctions or fines on businesses that knowingly sell spice: “If a product on your shelf is endangering the public and you’re knowingly putting it out there for the public to consume, then you’ are responsible.”
Meanwhile, Mijares said the best thing he can do is warn other parents: "If these smoke shops are making it that easy for it to happen eventually there's going to be somebody out there who's going to buy it and they're going to die from it."
Authorities suspect that already happened, linking nine deaths in the United States last year to synthetic drugs.