BANGOR, Maine — Locally sold herbal products that reportedly provide a marijuana-like high have been banned by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration effective at the end of this week. According to the Federal Register, the ban is “necessary to avoid an imminent hazard to the public safety.”
Known as Spice, K2, “fake pot,” synthetic marijuana and by a host of other names, the products typically are marketed as incense or potpourri and sell for $30 to $40 a gram, or about twice the street value of marijuana, according to Bangor police Lt. Tom Reagan. Reagan is among numerous law enforcement and medical professionals in Maine and the United States who have expressed concern about the products — which have a number of potentially serious side effects — and applaud the ban.
The products are made from plant material spiked with synthetic cannabinoids, the active ingredient in marijuana. Spice and several variations of the product have been widely available at tobacco and smoke shops, head shops and convenience stores, including some in Bangor.
Usually smoked or mixed with food, the products have been especially popular with teens and young adults, as well as people who are subject to drug testing, because they don’t show up in commonly used drug tests, according to Reagan, a certified drug recognition expert instructor who also has worked as a detective.
Though the packages warn that the substances are not for human consumption, Reagan notes that they often are displayed alongside tobacco, pipes, rolling papers and other products designed for their consumption, which he noted in a recent interview is an “obvious contradiction.”
As of last month, 15 states had banned the chemicals.
Darrell Crandall, division commander for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, said the MDEA had been in talks with the state Attorney General’s Office about banning synthetic cannabinoids in Maine before the nationwide ban was announced. He said Spice and its variations were a topic of discussion at the fall meeting of the National Alliance of State Drug Enforcement Agencies.
“Makers of these harmful products mislead their customers into thinking that ‘fake pot’ is a harmless alternative to illegal drugs, but that is not the case,” DEA Acting Administrator Michele M. Leonhart said last month in a news release announcing the emergency measure.
The ban, she said, “will call further attention to the risks of ingesting unknown compounds and will hopefully take away any incentive to try these products,” she said.
The nationwide ban, which takes effect on Dec. 24, makes it illegal to possess, sell, use, import or export five synthetic cannabinoids used to make the products, according to the DEA. The ban will remain in place while the DEA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services determine if the chemicals should permanently be placed on the federal list of controlled substances considered unsafe or abused.
Under the federal emergency measure, synthetic cannabinoids will be treated as Schedule 1 drugs, which is the category that includes drugs such as heroin, marijuana and Ecstasy. Federal penalties for possession and trafficking would depend on many variables, including the amount of the drug involved, when and where it was seized and the defendant’s criminal history, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Because there is no state law regarding the products, state drug agents and other law enforcement officers can seize it but the state cannot prosecute Spice-related cases, Assistant Attorney General William Savage confirmed this week.
According to published reports, the federal ban was prompted by a growing number of reports from poison control centers, hospitals and law enforcement agencies in the past year regarding the use of the products, which have caused side effects ranging from rapid heartbeat, dangerously high blood pressure, agitation and anxiety to seizures, nausea and, in some cases, hallucinations and severe paranoia.
“Those effects are not typical of what you see with marijuana,” Dr. Karen Simone, director of the Northern New England Poison Center in Portland, which serves Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, said last week in a telephone interview.
Synthetic cannabinoids have spurred more than 2,000 calls to poison control centers throughout the United States so far this year alone, Simone said, citing figures from the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System.
She said the number of calls coming into the Portland center has risen dramatically since 2008, when the products began turning up in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.
The center received one call in 2008, two in 2009 and so far this year, 26 calls, she said.
“These things are a problem,” Simone said. “It’s not a good high and it’s not safe. People are coming to the hospital because it’s making them sick. We’re definitely getting a lot of calls.”
In addition, Simone said, the center received reports of 20 “exposure” cases, 17 of those phoned in by health care facilities.
“’Exposure’ in our world is that somebody took it and was having a problem with it,” Simone said. “These are actually people who were sick. That alone is concerning. And these are just the cases we hear about. I guess our message is: This is not just a safe, no-big-deal kind of high.”
She said that while no deaths have been attributed to Spice in northern New England, the drug might have been a factor in an automobile accident that resulted in injury. Nationally, synthetic cannabinoids have been cited as the cause of one death in Missouri and suspected in a death in Texas, she said.
To Reagan’s knowledge, the use of Spice has resulted in at least one “bad trip” in Bangor. Though confidentiality laws prevented him from disclosing specifics, he said that the case involved a young male who fell ill after using Spice in the Rolland F. Perry City Forest. He said that the youth found himself unable to move and had to be taken to the hospital for treatment.
As a toxicologist, Simone said she has had many concerns about the products and their users.
“There are a lot of unknowns and you’re taking a risk when you take a drug like this,” she said. “Part of the issue is when you’re using something [that is not regulated and lacks quality control], there isn’t a standard. You could be getting a little or you could be getting a lot. There’s no way to know. How do you even know you are taking K2?”
For free and confidential information about synthetic cannabinoids or other harmful substances, contact the Northern New England Poison Control Center’s 24-hour hot line at 800-222-1222.