It looks like oregano, smells like incense and gets you high like marijuana.
Made of crushed leaves and sprayed with mind-altering chemicals, the substance known most commonly as “spice” is sold legally in head shops around the country.
Demand in Westwood was strong enough to push a local head shop to start carrying it earlier this year. Employees at the Smoke Spot said that spice products with names like “K2” and “Black Mamba” have attracted a steady stream of buyers in the past few months; three grams retail for $50.
With its peg as the “legal marijuana,” spice has also attracted the attention of authorities.
The Los Angeles wing of the Drug Enforcement Administration has been aware of the substance for about a year, said spokeswoman Special Agent Sarah Pullen. The bureau has transported samples from around the country to its lab, with complicated results.
“Chemically, none of them are falling within any sort of federal legal guidelines for being controlled,” Pullen said.
Once smoked, these “synthetic marijuana” products, which are marketed as incense, are supposed to induce a marijuana-like high. But those who have tried both are quick to point out that the two are not interchangeable.
One college-aged female, who wished to remain anonymous because of use of illegal substances, described the experience as a “body high,” compared with the mental high associated with traditional marijuana use. She said the sensation lasted about an hour and a half, with the one negative effect being a headache afterward.
The lack of regulatory framework makes enforcement impossible, Pullen said.
One Smoke Spot employee, who wished to remain anonymous for job security reasons, said he is personally against such recreational use.
“Officially in the law, we sell it as an incense; but the reason people have bought it is for the purpose of (getting high),” he said.
That also means authorities aren’t sure what the products are made of. Except that it originated in Europe, Pullen said that the DEA has “no idea” what synthetics like spice contain.
“The bottom line is that you don’t know what you’re putting in your body,” she said. “It is definitely a substance of concern.”
The Los Angeles DEA is working with other states to develop legislation to control spice and other forms of synthetic marijuana, she said. Eleven states have outlawed the substance since March, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At least four have bills pending.
Jon Goldberg, an assistant special agent with the Los Angeles DEA, said a push is underway in Washington to place spice and other forms of synthetic marijuana on the controlled substances list.
But California as a state has yet to hit the panic button. No anti-spice legislation has been introduced in Sacramento to date, Pullen said. In both medical and legal communities, attention has been relatively low.
Goldberg said outside sources have observed the drug working its way into the university and collegiate system, but not on a grand scale.
Pullen’s guess? Real marijuana is not hard to find.
“That could be one reason people don’t necessarily need to go to synthetics,” she said.
The sticker cost of spice may be less expensive than marijuana, but Patrick Murphy, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, said both are about even in terms of accessibility.
“You can’t just walk into CVS and buy spice,” Murphy said. “It takes some effort.”
A July 23 release from the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported more than 750 calls around the country about synthetic marijuana products. A request for a regional breakdown in the numbers was not returned.
The report warns against reactions not typically experienced by marijuana users, such as elevated blood pressure and nausea.
Yet no medical emergencies resulting from the use of spice have been reported at UCLA. Medical director Nancy Holt said she has not been made aware of any incidents at the Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center.
That makes drug policy experts skeptical of a ban, at least in California.
According to Murphy, spice probably most closely fits on the controlled substances list in the government’s view. But he said it does not present a compelling case for federal involvement.
“From a political standpoint, I don’t see a lot of motivation for us increasing that list (of regulated drugs),” Murphy said. “With all the things the federal government has to deal with, ... (I) don’t see this rising to the top.”
Murphy, a former examiner for the federal drug czar’s office under the first President George Bush, added that he has yet to see the addictive element or serious health consequences that would justify urgent political action. The cost of enforcement could skyrocket past the cost of keeping spice on the shelves, he said.
Spice may prove to be only a fad. But in the meantime, the hazy details surrounding the substance should put consumers on guard. Non-regulated substances lack quality control, said Karen Miotto, a clinical psychiatrist at UCLA.
With spice’s short track of records, there is no way to detect the percentage of psychoactive ingredients – a buyer could be paying for a range of results under a single name.
Spice is marketed as incense or potpourri. Without regulations, a vendor could sell complete incense with no psychoactive effect, Miotto said. Or, on the other hand, one sprayed with hallucinogenic chemicals.
She urges potential buyers to think beyond the buzz to an industry driven by profit.
“You can never underestimate the commercial and entrepreneurial agenda of the people who make these products,” Miotto said.
“People have to take hold of the fact that (vendors) are out there trying to sell you off on something that often has no effect or a hazardous effect.”
Contributing reports from Thomas Standifer, Bruin contributor.