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"Spice" makers alter recipes to sidestep state laws banning synthetic marijuana

Spice manufacturers, who spray herbs with compounds that mimic the active ingredient in marijuana, have altered their recipes just enough to skirt the bans and are again openly marketing Spice in stores and on the Internet. Some users report that the new generation of products could be more potent than the original formulas, which have sickened hundreds nationwide and been linked to deaths.

Spice, commonly sold in colorful packets as “herbal incense,” is smoked to get high. A new National Institute on Drug Abuse study found that it is the second-most frequently used illicit substance among high school seniors, behind marijuana. Some users have experienced seizures, hallucinations, vomiting, anxiety and an accelerated heart rate, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In March 2011 Virginia, one of about 40 states that regulate Spice, made it a crime to have or sell the herbal compound that contains any of 10 chemicals often used in the mixture. The same month, DEA issued a 12-month nationwide emergency prohibition on five compounds. However, prosecutions of three of the largest Spice busts in Virginia - including one in Falls Church - have hit roadblocks because the Spice that police seized does not contain banned chemicals listed in state law. Authorities in Florida, Indiana, Illinois and Alaska have encountered similar problems.

In the Falls Church case, police in June raided a tobacco shop near two schools, seizing 1,700 packets of synthetic marijuana. Unfortunately, the Spice samples tested from Arabica Tobacco contained only nonrestricted active ingredients, according to court papers.The case is scheduled to go to court next month, and prosecutors declined to say whether it will go forward.

Spice caught the attention of law enforcement in 2008 and has exploded in popularity. The mixes, made with the synthetic version of compounds known as cannabinoids, are sold for about $15 to $25 a gram. One Web site advertises “Legal products available for each . . . state!”

The problem for lawmakers is thorny. There are potentially hundreds of synthetic cannabinoids that makers could substitute for the banned ones - and that is exactly what has happened. In July and August alone, Virginia’s forensic lab tested 468 spice samples sent by police statewide. Only 101 included banned substances.

Virginia lawmakers anticipated that spicemakers might switch formulas, so they included a provision in the law that controls chemicals intended to act in a similar fashion as the banned ones. So far, it has not led to any prosecutions.

The problems with enforcement come as the substance is exacting a higher toll. Annual calls to poison control centers about spice have more than doubled nationwide, to about 6,300 this year, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. In the Washington area, there were 65 calls to the National Capital Poison Center last year and 85 through August 2011.

A recent study found a possible link between spice use and heart attacks in three Texas teens. An eighth-grader in Pennsylvania who had reportedly smoked the drug from a Pez dispenser died in October after a double lung transplant.

In June 2010 David Rozga, an Iowa 18-year-old who had just graduated from high school with a 3.5 grade-point average and planned to attend college, smoked synthetic marijuana, his father said. Rozga became agitated and told his friends “he felt like he was in hell,” his father said. A short time later, Rozga went home and shot himself in the head. Police implicated use of synthetic marijuana as a factor in his suicide.

“Our whole world was taken out from under us,” said Mike Rozga, David’s father. “We are in a new age of drug dealing when you can walk into a local mall, convenience store or go online and buy this stuff.”

State Sen. Mark R. Herring (D-Loudoun), who wrote Virginia’s Spice law, said it has helped educate people about the dangers of the drug and encouraged reputable retailers to stop selling it. But he said that more needs to be done. He said legislation is being written in his state that would add six compounds to the banned list.

Lawmakers on the federal level are also taking a more comprehensive approach by seeking to ban Spice compounds, as well as classes of chemical structures on which synthetic marijuana compounds are commonly built.

The initial appeal of Spice was as a legal high, but it remains popular because most drug tests will not pick it up and it is readily available from dozens of web sites.

Written by: Justin Jouvenal, The Washington Post
Posted: Jan 06, 2012 by Lisa Callaham

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