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Bangor smoke shops agree to pull popular synthetic marijuana ‘spice’ off shelves

Posted April 17, 2013, at 6:01 p.m.
Last modified April 17, 2013, at 7:39 p.m.
Christopher Ruhlin, owner of  Herbal Tea and Tobacco in downtown Bangor, holds packages of spice that he plans on removing from his store after being asked to do so by Bangor police.
Christopher Ruhlin, owner of Herbal Tea and Tobacco in downtown Bangor, holds packages of spice that he plans on removing from his store after being asked to do so by Bangor police.
Christopher Ruhlin, owner of the Herbal Tea and Tobacco in downtown Bangor, plans to remove a synthetic incense known as &quotspice" from his store after being asked to do so by Bangor police.
Christopher Ruhlin, owner of the Herbal Tea and Tobacco in downtown Bangor, plans to remove a synthetic incense known as "spice" from his store after being asked to do so by Bangor police.

BANGOR, Maine — The owner of a downtown smoke shop and Main Street pawn shop have agreed to halt sales of synthetic cannabinoids, better known as spice, at the request of interim Bangor Police Chief Peter Arno.

“We’re going to pledge not to sell any of the synthetic smokes at all. We’re completely dropping it,” Chris Ruhlin, owner of Herbal Tea and Tobacco at 44 Main St., said Wednesday afternoon.

Arno asked Ruhlin on Tuesday if he’d be willing to pull the controversial synthetic drug from his shelves. Ruhlin agreed, and announced his decision during a Tuesday night meeting of the Bangor Business and Economic Development Committee.

The interim chief reached out to two other shops in the city that sell the synthetic drugs Wednesday morning, asking that they follow suit.

Richard Hatch, who oversees compliance at Cash X-Press at 575 Main St., said Wednesday afternoon that he agreed to stop selling spice after his inventory runs out. Cash X-Press operates a pawn shop which also sells pipes and tobacco products and is licensed to perform money transactions.

“Whatever I have left is not very much and it’s going to be gone very, very soon,” Hatch said.

Bill Bart, owner of Headies Glass Gallery at 514 Broadway, said Wednesday that he was preparing to open a new store at 64 Main St. and hasn’t had time to respond to Arno’s message, and that he would have to speak with the interim chief before making a decision.

The new store, which will be just a few doors down from Herbal Tea and Tobacco, will only sell clothing and smoking glassware, according to Bart. Whether the current location will continue to sell spice is yet to be determined.

Spice and other synthetic marijuana products are marketed as “herbal incense” and labeled “not for human consumption” to mask their intended purpose and avoid U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversight. However, the products are usually smoked to achieve a legal high and are widely available at smoke shops and other businesses and on the street.

“A huge portion of the people who buy it and burn it find it to be relaxing and the effects similar, perhaps, to those [of marijuana],” Ruhlin said. “The reality is that it’s not similar at all.”

When smoked or used inconsistent with labeling, side effects include agitation, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, increased heart rate, high blood pressure, tremors and seizures, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

William Easton, a 19-year-old customer of Herbal Tea and Tobacco, said two of his friends suffered seizures after smoking spice. He walked into the store Wednesday to thank the shop for agreeing to weed out the product.

“The kids here, they’re destroying themselves with it,” Easton said.

Packages of spice start at $10 for a gram and a half, and range up to $50 for 10 grams, according to Ruhlin.

Hatch said he wasn’t surprised by the interim chief’s request to pull the spice.

“This stuff is dangerous. It should not be on the shelf,” he said.

The popularity is growing, according to the office. A 2011 study found that more than 11 percent of high school seniors had used a synthetic marijuana, such as spice or K2, in the past year.

In Portland, spice is available at as many as a dozen smoke shops and gas stations, according to Tucker Kollman, a manager at the Blazin’ Ace Smoke Shop on Fore Street.

“To be competitive with the other shops in Portland, we have to remain in the [spice] market,” Kollman said, adding that his shop has never been asked to discontinue sales of the substance. He said the Blazin’ Ace plans to continue to sell it for as long as it’s legal.

He wasn’t sure how much spice was sold at the shop, which was voted Best Head Shop in a Portland Phoenix contest, but that the synthetic marijuana was “pretty popular.”

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration first noticed synthetic cannabinoids in the United States in 2008 after border control agents found it crossing into the U.S. from overseas markets.

“Because cannabis is not available to people, it has created this market for this alternative option that people have found,” Ruhlin said. Both he and Hatch said they support the legalization of marijuana in Maine, arguing that it would drastically reduce demand for more dangerous chemical substances.

The DEA and at least 38 states have taken steps to regulate or ban spice and other synthetic cannabinoids, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

In March 2011, the DEA temporarily classified five synthetic cannabinoids as Schedule I substances. On April 12, the DEA announced methylone, a synthetic stimulant found in bath salts, would be permanently classified as a Schedule I drug. On the same day, the agency announced that three synthetic cannabinoids — UR-144, XLR11, and AKB48 — which are found in spice and products marketed as “herbal incense,” also would face temporary bans, stating they “pose an imminent hazard to public safety.”

In Maine, Rep. Adam Goode of Bangor has introduced legislation to ban the sale and possession of synthetic cannabinoids.

Ruhlin said he was “deeply skeptical about [officials’] ability to enforce” such a ban because synthetic marijuana, which is a $6.2 billion market, would simply move underground.

Hatch said he’s concerned that a ban on the substances would bring far more dangerous drugs to the United States. He cited Krokodil, a drug that mimics the effects of heroin that has gained popularity in Russia.

The highly addictive drug carries an extremely high risk of death and eats away at flesh when injected, leaving behind gruesome wounds, according to Time magazine.

Krokodil “blows bath salts out of the water,” Hatch said. “Bath salts is baby powder next to this.”

Issues with spice have surfaced in recent years in Bangor, with residents, business owners and city officials complaining about the behavior of individuals in the Pickering Square area. Empty spice packages were frequently found on the ground in Pickering Square and a small park behind Herbal Tea and Tobacco and Nocturnem Draft Haus. In an attempt to reduce the littering, Ruhlin started a “recycling” program in which the shop returned 5 cents to patrons who brought their empty spice bags into the shop for disposal, Ruhlin said.

During Tuesday night’s committee meeting, Councilor James Gallant asked Ruhlin how much the loss of spice revenue would hurt his business.

“What you are selling is legal,” Gallant said. “I have to be the guy who asks if you’re going to be OK.”

“I’m going to do it,” Ruhlin responded. “We existed for many years without it, and I didn’t buy a Ferrari last year.”

Ruhlin declined to say how much spice sales contributed to his business, but did say his decision would result in a “significant” loss of revenue. He said that he believes a person has a right to do what they wish with their body, and that he made his decision not because of morals, but rather to cooperate with the desires of his city.

“My relationship with the community that has supported me for 16 years is more important to me than the money I make selling this product,” Ruhlin said Wednesday.

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