Tahlequah Daily Press

December 3, 2012

Experts agree: Spice not nice


TAHLEQUAH — Last week, agents with the Drug Task Force seized thousands of packages of synthetic cannabinoids, commonly known on the street as “spice.” The raid that scooped up the “fake marijuana,” coupled with a seminar focusing on the substance and its hazards, has sparked concern among local residents.

When reports appeared in the Daily Press, readers identifying themselves as parents and grandparents began to call and drop by the newspaper office. They wanted more information on how to spot the usage of this product in young people, and what they could do to help combat this rapidly growing scourge.

One woman worried she might stop at a convenience store, let her grandson out to get a soda pop, only to have him return – unbeknownst to her – with a packet of spice in his pocket. Another said her teenage daughter had been acting “weird,” and feared she might have succumbed to this threat.

Law enforcement officials and activists say these folks are right to be concerned. The spice seems innocuous, and is sold as incense or potpourri. But people have discovered they can smoke the chemically treated leaves in the same manner as marijuana, for a similar “high.” They disregard the warning on the label indicating the substance is not for human consumption. That label is what has allowed spice, thus far, to fly under the radar of authorities and FDA regulators.

As the law enforcement operation at a local store unfolded, it became apparent that spice users cut across all age brackets. Retailers aren’t supposed to sell it to anyone under age 18, but as with cigarette and beer purchases, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Some people said they bought the product without being ID’d, leading to officers to fear that an underaged teen could have easy access.

Task force members posted at the store talked to a number of customers about spice, and most initially said they were buying it as incense. That doesn’t make much sense economically, because spice runs $10 to $30 for 1 to 3 grams; incense products can be picked up for around $1 for 10 sticks.

Once they understood they weren’t subject to arrest, most of the customers later admitted they’d been smoking the substance. Some seemed to believe that if it was legal, it was safe – even if they were using it in an illicit manner.

But spice is extremely dangerous – certainly more so than marijuana, according to Cherokee County Juvenile Court Director Cindy Farmer. Many users have developed serious medical conditions, and some have died. This alarming trend will continue until laws are passed to address the situation.

State Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, says lawmakers agree something needs to be done, and he feels confident the problem will be addressed in the next legislative session. Area residents can express their concerns by contacting their elected officials, formulating petitions in their neighborhoods, and staying connected with like-minded people.

To protect our young people, parents, grandparents, teachers and others in positions of authority should keep their eyes peeled for this product. Spice usually comes in foil packages, with bright colors and unique names. It has a distinctive odor, like incense, and the smell will be in the room or on the clothing of a user. Any child who acts out of sorts, or out of character, could be experimenting with the substance.

As with any other drug or alcohol use, the best bulwark against tragedy is to talk to your kids. Let them know spice is dangerous. Stay alert, and keep  lines of communication open.

Spice may not be labeled an illicit drug, but that’s exactly what it is. And because of the array of chemicals it contains, it can be far worse than many other drugs. It seems oddly ironic that with the crusade against the comparatively harmless hemp plant still in full swing in some areas, a truly deadly substance like spice can flourish.