Spice is not nice

Synthetic marijuana use implicated in teenager’s death
Posted:  Monday, July 2, 2012 - 2:45pm
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An Alna couple hope their family’s tragedy serves as a warning and preventative to others.

Amy and Mike Preston’s 18-year-old nephew Oliver Satchell Smith died near his home in Michigan on May 26 after smoking spice.

Spice is the common name for what’s also called synthetic marijuana. It’s a synthetic, chemical-laced herbal mixture – sold and marketed legally in the U.S. – that mimics the effects of marijuana with sometimes horrible results.

Smith’s death was one of a series of spice-related tragedies in Bloomfield Township, Mich., this spring that led Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to make it illegal to possess or sell synthetic marijuana mimics in Michigan.

Michigan joined 39 other states, including Maine, that have laws against spice. However, many of these laws have been ineffectual, as manufacturers quickly develop new compounds to replace banned substances before laws go into effect. Maine’s latest spice law, effective July 1, bans five specific chemical compounds commonly found in spice mixtures.

The new Maine spice law arrives dead on arrival. Spice manufacturers, who follow legislation closely, have already replaced the banned substances with new chemicals, Boothbay Harbor police said. Spice is still on the shelf, legally, in Maine.

On the heels of reports of the substance’s dangerous side effects, Congress also took action this year to further control spice mixtures. On June 19, the Drug Enforcement Agency announced new federal legislation that adds 26 synthetic drugs to the Controlled Substances Act and creates a new class of controlled substances called cannabamimetic agents.

The new federal law also doubles the amount of time a substance may be temporarily placed on the controlled substances schedule, giving legislators time to keep up with spice manufacturers.

Lincoln County District Attorney Geoff Rushlau said the new, more effective federal law can only be enforced by federal law enforcement agencies. Maine legislators will undoubtedly be revisiting spice in their next session to catch up to federal lawmakers.

What is spice?

Sometimes confused in public perception with bath salts, which are synthetic hallucinogens, spice refers to a variety of herbal mixtures that are laced with chemicals to induce a marijuana-like high.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse lists the effects of spice use as “elevated mood, relaxation and altered perception” and adds that in some cases effects can be stronger than pot. Psychotic episodes such as extreme anxiety, paranoia and hallucinations have been reported from smoking spice.

Spice is sold in colorful packets, with names like Scooby Snax, Buzz, Smiley Dog and Funky Monkey, labeled “Not for Human Consumption.” Despite the labeling, users smoke spice like marijuana.

The active ingredients in spice are synthetic chemicals manufactured without the testing safeguards that govern other marketed drugs. Packet labels frequently list only the herbal ingredients in the mixture, police said.

Some of spice’s attractions include its ease of legal purchase, user’s misperception that it’s a natural substance, and the fact it is not detected in standard drug tests, according to the national institute for drug abuse.

The Northern New England Poison Control Center has seen a steady rise in reports of spice toxicity. The Center received nine spice poisoning reports in 2010, 41 in 2011, and 30 during the first five months of 2012. However, there is no obligation to report these incidences, so it is possible the data may underestimate the problem.

Symptoms reported to poison control centers from spice use include rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation and elevated blood pressure. Spice use has also been associated rarely with heart attacks in young people.

Personal tragedy

For the Prestons and other members of Oliver Smith’s family, his death has been a rallying cry for action.

Pressure from Smith’s family, friends and neighbors led to the Michigan governor’s ban and was also instrumental in Citgo and BP’s decision to no longer carry spice on its shelves.

“When Oliver died it opened up thousand of people’s eyes to what is happening,” Amy Preston said. “They realized this could easily be happening to one of them.” Smith had been a boy scout, eagle scout, soccer player, “an all-American kid” from an educated, middle class community, until he started experimenting with spice in high school.

The Prestons said they were amazed by how addictive spice appears to be. “This was a good, mentally strong kid with supportive parents and he couldn’t kick the stuff,” Mike Preston said.

This spring, Smith appeared to be on the right path, back to work and school and reconnecting with his family. A friend said Oliver was feeling particularly good about his progress on the night he died. Smith went to the lake to enjoy the sunset and celebrate his success.

Unfortunately, his celebration included spice. His body was found the next morning by fishermen with an open spice packet by his side. The Oakland County Medical Examiner ruled Smith’s death an accidental overdose.

The Prestons want to raise local awareness before a tragedy like Oliver’s happens here. “We can’t wait for legislators,” Mike Preston said. He suggested boycotts and direct pressure on local sellers of spice. “If they start losing business, they’ll take it off the shelves.”

Local connections

Boothbay Harbor Police Chief Robert Hasch said they are seeing a lot of spice use in Boothbay Harbor. He said it is particularly popular with teenagers and with those on probation or parole, who are subject to testing for drug and alcohol use.

Hasch said he hears from a lot of parents and community members concerned about spice. Many describe kids who act like zombies or are agitated from smoking the substance.

Locally, Enchantments in Boothbay Harbor and the Smoke Shop in Wiscasset sell spice. Although not required by law to do so, both shops limit sale to those over 18 years old and require photo identification.

Spice is out of sight, behind the counter at Enchantments and there are no signs that indicate it is for sale.

Proprietor Bill Kirby said he has sold spice for three or four years, averaging three packs sold per day. He said he provides information to the local police department on the chemical composition of the spice varieties he sells. He said he is not pro-drugs, does not use narcotics or alcohol and “kicks out” anyone who asks for bath salts.

Kirby doesn’t believe that what he sells is dangerous. “Over the years, I’ve never heard anything negative from any of my customers. If I believed it was harmful, I would never sell it,” he said. On the contrary, Kirby believes spice has helped some users resist harmful addictions to opiates and hard drugs.

“To some people, spice has been a godsend,” he said.

Dr. Karen Simone, a toxicologist with the Northern New England Poison Control Center in Portland, said severe reactions to spice are not commonly reported.

“A lot of calls that come in to the center are from patients with increased heart rates or people seeing scary things,” Simone said. Because the chemical substances in spice are not regulated, have not been tested on humans, and can be present in various mixtures and strengths, Simone said users “have no idea what they are getting.”

“Any time you buy something like this and don’t know what’s in it, you are taking a huge risk,” Simone said.

The Prestons hope other families will have the opportunity that is no longer available to them. “Oliver was so alive, he lit up the room,” Mike Preston said. “We just want to get the word out, so this doesn’t happen to anybody else.”