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 V.22 No.27 | July 4 - 10, 2013 

News Feature

The Spice Mustn’t Flow

Law enforcement cracks down on synthetic weed

Spice brand herbal incense
Wikimedia Commons
Spice brand herbal incense

Federal, state and local law enforcement officials gathered in a Downtown conference room last week to announce the results of a multi-agency operation designed to make New Mexico streets less Spicy.

The press conference came one day after DEA agents and local police officials conducted mass raids on smoke shops—from Farmington to Las Cruces—looking for Spice and other synthetic drugs. Officials said the raids were part of a nationwide effort targeting high-level members of dangerous designer drug-trafficking operations. In New Mexico, authorities arrested and charged four men—all brothers—with conspiracy to distribute “controlled substance analogues” for selling the synthetic weed.

Federal authorities arrested: Khaled Assi, 39, of Gallup, N.M.; Mohammed Kayed Assi, 26, of Farmington, N.M.; Nael Assi, 41, of Gallup, N.M.; and Amro Assi, 33, of Grants, N.M. All four defendants made their initial appearances in federal court last week and are temporarily detained pending a hearing. If convicted, each defendant faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and Khaled, Nael and Amro Assi would be deported after serving their prison sentences.

According to the DEA, Spice gained popularity among teens and young adults for its ability to get people stoned without showing up on a drug screen. But DEA officials said having clean urine comes at a hefty physical and psychological price. In order to mimic THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, officials say Spice is often mixed with dangerous chemicals known to cause organ damage, seizures and death.

In order to mimic THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, officials say Spice is often mixed with dangerous chemicals known to cause organ damage, seizures and death.

The drug is often packaged as potpourri or incense and has become a national concern because of its propensity to negatively impact public health. Kenneth Gonzales, Attorney for the District of New Mexico, characterized Spice as the most recent designer drug to reach and infiltrate American neighborhoods. “It is imperative that everyone—especially unwary young people—realize that Spice is not for sport, and we will prosecute those who know the dangers but push it for profit behind a facade of a legitimate business,” said Gonzales.

Albuquerque resident Tina Richardson is among those people who used to use Spice to help her pass a drug test. The 39-year-old single mother of three said she started smoking spice “so that [she] could get high without getting caught on probation.” Richardson explains she was drawn to the drug because quitting marijuana cold turkey is difficult. If she would have tested positive for THC or any drug, she ran the risk of completing her sentence in prison—away from her three sons. However she said after smoking Spice for a short time, she got strung out.“I know it’s addicting because I went through withdrawals. I was angry, irritable—I wanted to kill everyone if I didn’t have it and I would literally spend my last dime on it,” said Richardson. “If we didn’t have food in the house, I would borrow money for spice; fuck food.”

Besides proliferation of synthetic weed, DEA officials said there's also been growing use of synthetic cathinones (stimulants/hallucinogens) sold as “bath salts” or “plant food.” Sold using harmless names like “Ivory Wave” and “Vanilla Sky,” officials say these products are designed to produce stimulating effects similar to cocaine, LSD and meth.

Besides choosing Spice over existential essentials, Richardson said the drug introduced her to a side of drug use she rarely—if ever—witnessed while smoking pot. In the few years she smoked Spice, Richardson said she saw several people go through physical and emotional changes, including overdoses almost resulting in loss of life. “I’ve seen three different people fall out [overdose] on me and almost fucking die in my house,” she said.

Richardson said because of the depravity associated with Spice, she supports law enforcement efforts to eradicate the drug. “I don’t think they should have it [Spice] out there anymore. It messes people up,” she said, adding that it was almost impossible to quit smoking Spice until they banned the sale of her favorite brand, Bizarro; when she couldn’t find it anymore, she used that as an opportunity to quit.

Emily Kaltenbach is the state director of New Mexico’s chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), an advocacy organization working to promote “alternatives to the failed war on drugs.” She said DPA works toward creating drug policies based on science, health and human rights. “In general we advocate not increasing the number of drugs that are made illegal. All we are doing is taking precious resources away from true prevention and harm reduction for people who might choose to use drugs which sometimes can be dangerous,” said Kaltenbach. “We shouldn’t be criminalizing the users. We’d rather see that money put toward education and prevention—rather than enforcement.”

Besides proliferation of synthetic weed, DEA officials said there's also been growing use of synthetic cathinones (stimulants/hallucinogens) sold as “bath salts” or “plant food.” Sold using harmless names like “Ivory Wave” and “Vanilla Sky,” officials say these products are designed to produce stimulating effects similar to cocaine, LSD and meth. Emergency medical personnel and poison control experts said people who used these stimulants have reported impaired perception, reduced motor control and violent outbursts.

According to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), nearly 11,500 emergency room visits involving synthetic cannabis occurred during 2010. One year later, SAMHSA reported the number of emergency room visits by people using synthetic cannabis more than doubled—to nearly 29,000 ER visits.

K2, the active ingredient in Spice, was first developed in research labs at Clemson University by chemist John W. Huffman for therapeutic purposes, but it rapidly gained popularity for its narcotic effects. Before long K2 was repurposed for recreational drug use. Since its 2011 ban, several chemicals have emerged to take its place.

 

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