The man arranging pipes behind the counter of Concrete Jungle looks to the woman next to him when asked if they sell synthetic marijuana, then looks back.
“No,” he says.
“We have herbal incense,” she adds, liltingly.
The prevarication probably isn’t necessary. Call it what you will, synthetic marijuana—a bricolage of man-made cannabinoids and potpourri-mixes of herbs—is legal in most states and counties, and remains unscheduled by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
But the trepidation by potential sellers of the substance is understandable, given the wave of bans happening across the country. So far, nine states and a throng of local governments have illegalized synthetic pot. Last week, Santa Fe County started on the path toward being one of them.
On Oct. 12, the Santa Fe County Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution to ban synthetic marijuana. The resolution, introduced by District 1 Commissioner Harry Montoya, isn’t binding, but is a preface to an ordinance that will be, Montoya says. He expects the ordinance to be introduced in December. Montoya’s second term on the commission expires at the end of the year.
The substance’s legal status “definitely circumvents regulatory processes and winds up on store counters and in the lungs of consumers, to say the least,” Montoya tells SFR. “We certainly want to follow in those states and those counties the precedent that they have set.”
Synthetic marijuana, also known as K2 or Spice, is an outgrowth of research chemicals developed at Clemson University to explore the therapeutic effects of cannabinoids. John Huffman, the chemist who created the ingredients, told The New York Times in July that the chemicals’ “effects in humans have not been studied and they could well have toxic effects.”
The toxicity of the stuff is unclear, although news reports on K2 are well-supplemented with frightening Reefer Madness-type anecdotes, such as the story of Iowan David Rozga, 18, who shot himself to death after smoking it. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 1,670 calls regarding synthetic pot from the beginning of 2010 to Oct. 14—the only time period for which accurate numbers are available—compared to the 4,161 calls pertaining to the old-fashioned stuff.
Steven Seifert, medical director of the New Mexico Poison Center, says his facility, in September, added an umbrella code to use for synthetic pot instead of inaccurately categorizing calls by brand name or description. Since then, he says, the center has received six calls for synthetic pot and six for authentic marijuana.
“Nationwide, the [symptomatic] reports have generally been different from standard marijuana reports,” Seifert says. “Generally people have been reporting increased agitation or shaking or tremors, but we don’t really know” exactly what is causing it.
That’s because the knowledge on synthetic pot is scant. The substance only began appearing in the US in 2008, US Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman David Ausiello tells SFR. Ausiello says it first appeared in Europe and spread to the US from military bases. “Then it’s been spreading ever since.”
It took approximately a year before synthetic pot hit the DEA’s radar and, in late 2009, the agency began a two-year process researching the specific compounds of the drug. That research is halfway completed and will determine if synthetic pot is similar enough to its authentic counterpart to warrant consideration by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration. If so, that could lead to “scheduling” the drug.
Scheduling synthetic pot would obviate the need for state and local government bans because a scheduled substance is federally illegal. But lawmakers can, in effect, ban whatever substance they want, even before determining exactly what it is.
“If this was something that was killing people across the country, like a flu virus, states could take the steps they need to take care of it,” Ausiello says.
The county’s resolution comes during a wave of anti-fake-weed measures around the country. Oregon was the ninth and latest state to ban it, and Matagorda County in Texas was the last county. Montoya says he first heard about the drug in a September newsletter from the National Association of Counties. (Like Montoya, that newsletter also says that synthetic pot “circumvents regulatory processes and winds up on store counters and in the lungs of consumers.”)
“I don’t believe we’ve had any major effects result from this,” Seifert says, referring to symptoms that indicate potential fatality. Over the phone, he reviews the list of synthetic pot calls, including the ones before the umbrella coding. “Moderate effect, K2. Minor effect. I’d be surprised if we had any major effects.”
A spokesperson from the New Mexico Department of Health says the department is not conducting any research or outreach regarding the drug.
Santa Fe County Sheriff Greg Solano says the county’s narcotics team members have not encountered the substance, but that they’ve “heard a growing number of discussions of youth using it and others using it. But they haven’t encountered it when making arrests.”
To drug-law reformers, the spate of bans is another battle in the war on drugs, wrongfully fought by governments.
“We feel that [bans are] the wrong step to take,” Grant Smith, federal policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington, DC, says. “The right approach is to regulate adult sales to prevent criminalization because that will result in an underground market, like we see with marijuana, that we see with other drugs.”
An underground market is certainly possible but, given that the entire appeal of synthetic pot—which is widely described as being far less pleasant than actual pot—is its legality, a ban would simply put both substances on equal footing, potentially negating the need for K2 in the first place.
To the charge that a ban will create a black market, Montoya says only, “That’s, I think, a common argument that they’ll give in terms of a reason why not to ban it. Certainly, there are laws in place that allow for medicinal use at this point. And this is not anything that has been declared legal for medicinal uses.”
In a Feb. 25 op-ed for CNN.com, Smith writes:
“What’s notable about these synthetic chemicals is that very little is known about them, and this legal alternative designed to deliver an experience like marijuana may actually carry more risk. Thus we have a supreme irony of drug prohibition: The government continues to criminalize marijuana—a drug with established medical value that has undergone exhaustive study—and entrepreneurs introduce a legal alternative to marijuana with ingredients scientists know little about.”