A new and potentially lethal drug has been sweeping the nation during the past decade. “Spice,” sometimes referred to as “K2,” “Bombay Blue,” “Blaze” and “Zohai,” is on the radar among deputies at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Palmdale station to such an extent that law enforcement urged passage of a city ordinance that will severely crack down on the possession, distribution and sale of this and other illegal synthetic drugs.
“Our ordinance will deal with some of the shortfalls in state law and help law enforcement in their efforts to stop the marketing, sale and possession of these dangerous and potentially deadly drugs in our city,” said Noel Doran, Palmdale assistant city attorney.
With school out for the summer break, law enforcement officials are concerned that more young people may spend some of their idle time experimenting with these dangerous compounds which are mixtures of herbs, spices and/or shredded plant materials designed to mimic 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—the primary psychoactive active ingredient found in marijuana. Synthetic cathinones—man-made chemicals related to amphetamines—are also known ingredients frequently mixed into the drug.
The new Palmdale law prohibits possession of synthetic drugs and the “sale and distribution of products claiming or represented to be synthetic drugs.” Certain “evidentiary factors” are tied to the law, among them if “the product is suitable for its marketed use and whether or not the business typically sells the type of products for the marketed use.”
Spice is typically sold in small plastic bags filled with dried flowers and leaves. The contents resemble ordinary potpourri—the common room freshener—and that disguise can allow it to easily skip detection by law enforcement. Purchases are frequently made at “head shops,” online, and at some medical marijuana dispensaries. There have reportedly been busts at local gas stations as well as on ice cream trucks.
Users typically roll spice into a joint, “blunt” (cigar wrapper) or smoke it from a pipe just like marijuana. The short-term effects are said to include a loss of motor control, a lack of pain response, delayed response time, increased agitation, pale skin, elevated blood pressure, heart palpitations and, sometimes, spastic body movements. Users can also expect a bout of dysphoria (sudden feelings of sorrow/anguish), paranoia and delusion.
These synthetic or “designer” drugs were first seen on American streets in the early 2000s and were originally thought to produce a “high” via a mixture of legal herbs. However, further laboratory study revealed that spice contains synthetic cannabinoids that have, generally, the same effect as the opiate marijuana. Spice ingredients contain a large and complex variety of synthetic substances; because of that, spice has become more popular since possession of marijuana is illegal. These synthetic copies had been legal in Palmdale until the ordinance. The man-made compounds accurately mimic the look, smell and effects of marijuana or hashish, but doctors warn that the unknown aspects of this psychotropic drug can lead to very serious health concerns.
Law enforcement now has the authority to revoke the license of a business found to be in violation of the law, but the ordinance will not apply to “legally prescribed drugs or drugs prohibited under state and federal law.”
In March 2011, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) declared spice a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act which prohibited production, possession and sale of any of the five different chemicals used to produce fake marijuana. Early on it was marketed as “tea,” “incense” or “herbs” and sprayed with chemicals that mimic THC.
Synthetic marijuana cannot be mixed with alcohol without making the user extremely ill. Also, the absence of a controlled growing environment means its purity and dosage are unregulated and inconsistent in each batch.
“The effects are much more unpredictable,” said Lewis Nelson, an emergency room doctor at New York University Langone Medical Center. “It’s dangerous, and there is really no quality control in what you are getting.”
More research is taking place regarding the psychotic affects of spice. Some studies have suggested that synthetic cannabinoid intoxication is associated with acute psychosis, worsening of previously stable psychotic disorders and that it may trigger a chronic (long term) psychotic disorder among vulnerable persons. This may be particularly true for those with a family history of mental illness. Although the ingredients are listed on the packaging, the typical user has probably never heard of the plant material used: canavalia maritima (coastal jack-bean), nymphaea caerulea (blue Egyptian water lily), pedicularis densiflora (Indian warrior), leonotis leonurus (lion’s tail) or zornia latifolia (maconha brava).
Unlike THC, which does not stay in the system for very long (about 10 days), the chemicals used to make spice are said to be much stronger and bind more permanently to receptors in the body. They remain longer in the brain, blood stream and other organs. Because spice is not as quick to bind to receptors in the body as THC, there is an increased risk of overdose as individuals ingest more because they cannot immediately feel the “high.” Spice does not show up in traditional urine analysis which can add to the difficulty of detection at drug rehabilitation clinics. Those persons in recovery can easily hide their use and appear to be “clean.”
In July 2012, the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act was signed into law, thereby banning synthetic compounds commonly found in spice and labeling the drug a Schedule 1 agent. These drugs are not considered legitimate for commercial use and include mescaline (peyote), lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), heroin and marijuana. Because the chemicals used in spice have a high potential for abuse and no medical benefit, the DEA has designated the five active chemicals most frequently found in spice as Schedule 1 controlled substances, making it illegal to sell, purchase or possess them. Some manufacturers may attempt to evade these legal restrictions by substituting different chemicals in their mixtures. Trouble is, some of those mixtures may be poisonous and have no active use in the human body.
There have been no scientific studies of spice’s effects on the brain, yet the typical results of smoking spice (elevated mood, relaxation, and altered perception) are said to be much stronger and last longer than marijuana. Some users have reported paranoia and hallucinations. Spice products act on the same cell receptors as THC, but bind more strongly to those receptors which generally leads to a much more powerful and unpredictable effect. Because the chemical composition of many products sold as spice are unknown, it is likely that some varieties also contain substances that could cause dramatically different effects than the user might expect. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH) also reports that spice can raise blood pressure and cause reduced blood supply to the heart (myocardial ischemia), and in a few cases it has been associated with heart attacks. Regulars users, the NIH found, may experience withdrawal and addiction symptoms.
In addition to the July law, California Health and Safety Code Section 11357.5 also makes it illegal for any person to sell, dispense, distribute, offer to sell, or possess for sale any synthetic cannabinoid compound, or any synthetic cannabinoid derivative. This misdemeanor crime can be punishable by a stay in the county jail.
Spice products are popular among young people; it is second only to marijuana among the illicit drugs most used by high school seniors, according to the NIH. They found in 2012 that spice use is more popular among boys than girls. Additionally, easy access and the misperception that spice products are “natural” and therefore “harmless” have likely contributed to their increased popularity. Also, chemicals used in spice are not easily detected in standard drug tests.
Another synthetic drug, “251,” acts as a psychedelic hallucinogenic—similar to LSD and ecstacy—and use often results in violent episodes. It is a powdered substance listed on certain websites as a “research chemical” that can be dissolved in a liquid, sprayed on blotter paper and ingested like a “tab” of LSD. When consumed, 251 binds to receptors in the nervous system and can cause psychotic behavior.
“Bath salts,” another illegal synthetic drug, resembles bathing products and are often sold in 50-milligram packets for $25 to $50 each. They are snorted to produce the same feelings of euphoria like cocaine or amphetamines. High doses can cause panic attacks, paranoia and delirium.
Synthetic LSD is believed to have originated in China and is gaining infamy in the southwest United States, particularly in West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. It can be purchased online for as little as $2 per dose, and use by some teens has resulted in a “bad trip” leading to violent episodes, self mutilation and/or suicide.
“These drugs are being marketed to avoid detection,” Doran continued. “We’ve seen items sold as potpourri without scent and ‘window cleaner’ that doesn’t clean windows. The products’ names and look often reference illicit drugs, and the price of these products are way out of line with similar products. This new ordinance will assist law enforcement in removing these dangerous drugs from stores in our city.”
The creation of the Palmdale ordinance follows a number of law enforcement actions. In 2012 a retailer at a Mobil gas station in Santa Clarita was arrested for the illegal sale of synthetic drugs. Deputies seized the products in their effort to inform more local businesses that such items are illegal and those merchants found in violation will be subject to enforcement under the law. In February, Sheriff’s deputies and DEA agents arrested 20 persons who were named in two federal indictments that targeted manufacturers and distributors of Phencyclidine (PCP). Several laboratories, operated by South L.A. gang members with ties to the Antelope Valley, were raided and seized. In December 2013, Operation Rosebud targeted drug trafficking in the Antelope Valley and resulted in the arrest of eight residents, the seizure of 60.5 pounds of methamphetamine, six pounds of “black tar” heroin and five pounds of powder cocaine with a street value of $2.5 million. Officials also seized $40,000 in cash.
Teenage- and young-adult drivers may be the most common motorists to get high and proceed to drive a car. Researchers at Columbia University conducted from 2000-2010 toxicological investigations of nearly 24,000 motor vehicle fatalities, concluding that marijuana played at least some role in 12,000 of those deaths. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found in a 2010 survey that one in eight high school seniors admitted driving after smoking marijuana. Federal data revealed that nearly half of the drivers fatally injured in a crash who tested positive for marijuana use were under 25 years of age.
The Palmdale ordinance follows similar efforts across the nation. In April, the Wasilla, Alaska city council passed a similar ordinance; Portales, N.M. passed the same law last year and the Barstow city council debated passage in 2013.