July 25, 2013

Maine seeing surge of scary drug called Spice

Poison center calls about the synthetic form of marijuana have eclipsed those for cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines, despite being nearly unheard of in Maine before 2010.

By Joe Lawlor jlawlor@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Sandra Watson, left, listens as her son Dylan Young talk about smoking dangerous synthetic drugs that mimic marijuana on Tuesday July 23, 2013 in Augusta. Last spring Young told legislators the story of his bad reaction to Spice, the one time he used it, when he testified in a favor of a bill to ban synthetic drugs.

Joe Phelan / Kennec Journal

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Starting in the 1980s, what is now known as Spice was created in a lab at Clemson University by professor John W. Huffman, who was researching synthetic cannabinoids. The research examined how these compounds could be used in new pharmaceutical products to potentially treat nausea and glaucoma, and as an appetite stimulant, according to the Clemson website.

But the research had unintended consequences, and some used Huffman’s research to produce synthetic marijuana. The synthetic marijuana, often called Spice or K2, spread across the country in the late 2000s and resulted in admissions to hospitals for hallucinations, psychotic behavior, rapid heart rates and other symptoms. Maine and many other states have since banned Spice, although manufacturers have found ways to circumvent the laws by slightly changing the chemical composition.

Huffman, in a 2011 profile by the Los Angeles Times, told the newspaper that the products were never intended to be smoked.

“These things are dangerous – anybody who uses them is playing Russian roulette,” Huffman said. “They have profound psychological effects.”

The most widely used chemical compounds in the manufacture of Spice bear Huffman’s initials, JWH-073, JWH-200 and JWH-018.

– Joe Lawlor

Spice producers have previously circumvented laws by slightly changing the chemical composition of the products, technically complying with the laws. A federal ban in 2011 proved ineffective because manufacturers tweaked the ingredients to comply with the law.

State Rep. Adam Goode, D-Bangor, who proposed the Spice ban, said the new law attempts to cast a wider net on chemicals used to make Spice and avoid some of the pitfalls of previous laws. He said he hopes the revisions will make it more difficult for Spice manufacturers to sidestep the law.

Sauschuck said making criminal cases stick against store owners will still be a problem, because the owners can always claim that they didn't know the product was illegal. It's a more believable defense than, say, someone selling cocaine.

"It will be hard to prosecute, but from a personal responsibility standpoint, they are required to know whether what they are selling is legal," Sauschuck said.

From a public health standpoint, Simone said, Spice is not as much of a threat as heroin and may not need as much law enforcement attention. Portland police say heroin usage has increased over the past year.

But Watson said after knowing her son could have died, she and Dylan became motivated to do what they could to remove Spice from the stores. At least then it's less available to teens, Watson said.

"It looks like all it is is potpourri, but in reality it's a very dangerous drug," she said. 

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:


Twitter: @joelawlorph


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