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Spice: What it is, how it works, and how it came to be outlawed

December 17th, 2010 Posted in Opinion

By Satenik Sargsyan

LOGAN–Jared Green was skeptical about the new drug his friends were discussing. Spice was legal and easily accessible for everyone. One could go to the local smoke shop, spend $20 and get high.

For Green (not his real name), who had successfully completed a drug rehabilitation program and had been clean and sober from drugs for two years, it made no sense that a substance causing individuals to experience a marijuana-like high, as his friends described it, would be easily available, especially in Cache County.

“I thought that there was no way that it would be strong enough or even make any effect,” Green said. “I thought my friends were making it up so I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever, I don’t care, I’ll just do it. It’s not that I’ll stop being sober if I do this.’

“Turns out it is pretty similar.”

What Green and his friends did not know is that spice, a generic name for the synthetic marijuana substitute, had already caught the attention of local authorities.

Initially manufactured to be an incense, the substance contains chemicals listed in the same category as heroin and LSD, according to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration website. Spice was marketed as “not for human consumption.” However, when people starting smoking it, there were very few studies and almost no data about the effects of spice, no federal regulation on spice was in place.

“We had people going to emergency rooms with elevated blood pressure, shortness of breath and extreme anxiety,” said Bear River Health Department official Lloyd Berentzen. “We would find out later that they had used spice.” The health department was sure there were no health benefits but only risks, Berentzen said.

Doug Thompson, Logan Regional Hospital spokesman, said the hospital emergency room staff saw an average of 40 to 50 cases of spice overdose every month.

Soon local law enforcement officers and citizens of the valley started expressing concerns. While citizens advocated for their own family members being hospitalized because of this, at that point, medically unidentifiable substance, the law enforcement officers came across an
increase in crime rates. Something needed to be done. And with the lack of either a federal or a state code, local authorities had to be quick on the spice decision.

Cache County Attorney James Swink said that after mothers started calling his office and expressing their concerns about their children using this out-and-available substance, it was apparent that county authorities would take immediate actions.

“Citizens and law enforcement brought the problem to the county attorney’s attention,” Swink said. “In 2010 they had more emergency room visits because of spice-related overdoses than all other controlled and elicit substances combined, including methamphetamine, cocaine.”

Law enforcement officers started extensive research into the drug in November 2009, Cache County Sheriff Deputy Mikelshan Bartschi said.

“We would make drug arrests and find half a pound of marijuana and quarter or half a pound of this stuff,” Bartschi said. “It didn’t look the same; it didn’t smell the same, and we didn’t know what it was for.”

Continuous research since has revealed that not only is spice as dangerous as marijuana, but it could possibly be more dangerous, he said. The most used chemicals in spice, JWH18 and JWH73, target the same brain receptors as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical used in marijuana.

“When you smoke marijuana, THC attaches to CB1 and CB2 receptors in the brain,” Bartschi said. “Those are the same receptors that chemicals used in spice get attached to.”

However, Bartschi drew an analogy suggested by USU Student Health Executive Director Jim Davis’ analogy to describe the differences that the spice chemicals and THC demonstrate. “Dr. Jim Davis calls those [receptors] parking stalls.

“Marijuana is like parking a moped in a parking stall. It’s in there, it goes away and you still have more room for other things but when we are talking about these chemicals, specifically, JWH18, it’s more like trying to park a semi-truck or something 10 times the size of a moped.”
This causes the brain go into overdrive, which can result in extreme paranoia.

Green said that smoking too much gives him extreme anxiety, and he starts feeling like he is judged by everyone, so he chooses to seclude himself when smoking to make the experience fully enjoyable. He said that he has felt extremely paranoid at times. One particular story was extremely memorable for him.

“Once I had a lot of spice in my room. My roommates weren’t home, and I started smoking it. I became really happy. I think I might’ve smoked too much. At one point I started looking behind my furniture to see if my roommates had left anything there to record me while they were gone. I felt like maybe I should act normal because maybe there are people watching me even though I was locked inside my room, and I felt like people would be judging what I was

After accumulating data on the issue, regular discussions happened between the law enforcement agencies, attorney’s office and health officials. While law enforcement was arresting people for smoking spice, the prosecution had little legal reference to base the case on.

“It costs a lot of money to create case law, which is where we were at with one particular case of a smoke shop owner who knowingly sold spice for human consumption,” Bartschi said. “The state law is 4 inches long. We took a sentence out of that, and that’s what we were applying.

“Law has to be specific, and we felt like we were being specific in execution of that one sentence but a good defense attorney could pick that apart.”

Another factor was that in order to establish a law, a scientific standard test would have to be in place, which suggested scientific proof from a qualified expert that chemicals in spice were hurting humans. The problem was because of so few tests and so few true experts on the subject, they weren’t really able to find professionals.

The alternative to establishing a case law was to get the health board’s involvement, Swink said. “They saw this issue with spice, given the risks associated with it, to use their rule-making authority to ban it.”

Under Utah Code Section 26 part 1, “a local health department may enforce state laws, local ordinances, department rules, and local health department standards and regulations relating to public health and sanitation,” the law reads.

While this allowed the prosecutors to refer to a specific ordinance in most of Cache, Box Elder and Rich counties, there were still cities that would need to pass individual ordinances, a trend witnessed in the fall, Swink said.

More studies are being done about spice nationally. Laboratories have developed blood and urine tests to identify the chemicals, and the Drug Enforcement Administration has declared spice a Schedule 1 controlled substance, the mere possession of which can result in a third-degree felony, he said.

Green said he was happy spice was illegal now, and wished that it would have never been permitted. “The fact that it was legal made me think that it wasn’t as bad,” he said. “It made the drug more approachable than it would be if it were illegal.

“And it felt less wrong, I would say. I felt less consciously bad about it. ”

Despite the fact that spice has now been criminalized, hospital emergency rooms still see four to five people a month with spice symptoms, Thompson said.

Green said he can’t get spice as easily now but it is still possible to find spice in Cache County. Because people have to travel long distances to purchase spice, the price has gone up.

Green said that spice is only addictive psychologically. “The high of spice puts you in a more relaxed state of mind,” he said. “It makes you very happy and comfortable, and you change a pattern of thoughts so you think of things that you would’ve never imagined before or have crazy ideas that, at the time, sound amazing. Things appear more interesting, colors
are more vibrant and more fun, and the music is just amazing.”

But Green paused and added, “Although it’s fantastic, and it feels awesome, there will always be a down side to any drug.”

Bartschi said the long-term effects of spice are still unknown.


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