“Spice” is back.
Just months after Virginia and dozens of other states banned synthetic marijuana, the chemists who make it have found a way to outfox lawmakers.
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 in stores and on the Web. Some users report that the new generation of products may be more potent than original formulas that 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 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.
Virginia, one of about 40 states that regulate spice, in March made it a crime to have or sell spice that contains any of 10 chemicals often used in the mixture. The same month, the DEA issued a 12-month nationwide emergency prohibition on five compounds.
But prosecutions of three of the largest spice busts in Virginia 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.
“I don’t know whether we are going to be able stay one step ahead of these chemists,” said Richard Trodden, a member of Virginia’s crime commission.
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 around $15 to $25 a gram. One website 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.
During 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 spice makers 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, though, it has not led to any prosecutions.
State scientists say they cannot offer testimony to juries to prove reformulated spice is similar to the original versions, because not enough is known about the compounds.
“There’s not enough foundational research done on these chemicals on which to base our testimony,” said Linda Jackson, a chemistry program manager for the state lab.
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 D.C. 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 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.”
Whatever the dangers, spice makers were ready for the bans.
Two weeks after Virginia outlawed synthetic marijuana, Hampton police seized 842 packets worth more than $8,000 from Outer Edge Gifts, a Hampton Roads area head shop.
Police said the high-profile bust was intended to send the message that spice was not welcome. Local media photographed seized drugs laid out neatly on a table.
But when the cameras turned away, the case crumbled. Police said forensic tests showed the synthetic marijuana did not contain banned compounds. They never filed charges.