The real fight over fake marijuana
by Kara Lopp
A convenience store just yards away from Butler High School is selling what police call synthetic marijuana. When smoked, it can cause a powerful, but dangerous high, with health officials saying a number of people have been admitted to area hospitals after taking it and police are struggling to keep up with the growing local supply.
But there’s a catch: it’s completely legal.
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration has banned five chemicals commonly used to make the “fake pot,” but companies are skirting the law by modifying the ingredients. The shell game is making it hard for local police and Mecklenburg County courts to keep up on the identification of the products and prosecution against its illegal forms.
Marketed most often to teens and young adults, the products are often called potpourri or herbal incense.
But according to experts, even the use of legal forms of the product can produce disastrous results, ranging from hallucinations to heart attacks. Store employees who sell the products in Matthews and Mint Hill shops say they’re responsible with the product and warn customers of potential side effects.
Since the federal ban was implemented about a year ago, Matthews police have arrested three people for possession of synthetic marijuana, with the last two arrests occurring in March, Cpl. Lori Valdes said. Mint Hill police haven’t filed any synthetic marijuana charges, Lt. John Rowell said.
Sold with names like “Demon Passion Smoke” and “Voodoo Spice,” these products consist of organic materials coated with chemicals that claim to mimic THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, the DEA said. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t approve these chemicals and there is no oversight of the manufacturing process.
When smoked, the chemical’s side effects can cause convulsions, anxiety attacks, elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure and seizures. Several people have been sent to the hospital after inhaling the toxic smoke. In severe cases, heart attacks and even deaths have been reported.
Tackling unknown territory
When it comes to spotting synthetic marijuana in the field, Matthews police are learning on the job, Detective David McGuirt said.
McGuirt is a member of the local DEA task force and Matthews officers’ first resource for identifying illegal drugs. But even he’s stumped on synthetic marijuana. In Matthews, officers receive basic training on new drug laws during daily meetings, he said, but the statutes aren’t always easy to enforce.
“It’s all so new, we’re all kind of learning as we go,” he said. “What we tell (officers) to do is go ahead and charge (suspects) and let the courts make the final decision as to whether or not that one’s on the ‘good’ list or the ‘bad’ list. The companies that are making this stuff are getting smart.”
One of the brand names Matthews police recently seized, Halo, is sold at the Smoker’s Depot in Mint Hill. Unfamiliar with the brand, the arresting officer sent a sample of the product to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation for testing, McGuirt said. The test results weren’t ready by press time.
Police aren’t the only ones confused by the new drug. The confusion surrounding synthetic marijuana – and differentiating between the illegal and legal – extends to the courts as well, said attorney Sheena Gatehouse, team leader for felony drug prosecution in the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office. Gatehouse will join other Mecklenburg County assistant district attorneys at a synthetic marijuana training in June, jointly hosted by the DEA and SBI. There have not been any felony synthetic marijuana charges filed in Mecklenburg County since the ban went into effect, she said. During a statewide DEA meeting Gatehouse attended in March the problem was a “hot topic,” and at that point no felony charges had been filed for synthetic marijuana statewide, she said.
“People don’t know what to do with it,” she said. “We can’t keep up with the chemist. Every time one (drug sample) is sent to the lab, the report looks different. (Companies) change one little (chemical) and now it’s a different thing. (District attorneys) have to be trained in the science of all of this. It’s just like the way we would never try a rape case without having someone properly trained in DNA evidence. The standard for the police when they make an arrest is they need probable cause. When we accept a case, we need the likelihood of success at trial.”
The “better safe than sorry” practice when it comes to this new drug form is “perfectly fine” for police, Gatehouse said.
“If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck,” she said. “But I think it’s going to take the lab report for us to take it to court.”
‘I do the right thing’
The Fullwood Express convenience store, 11229 E. Independence Blvd., suite 4, in Matthews, is one store in the area that sells the legal “potpourri” products. And, in fact, 36-year-old Scott McDowell of Matthews was charged March 29 with stealing $39.99 of the brand Zero Gravity from the store near Butler.
The product sells for $14.99 to $39.99.
The shop owner, who wouldn’t give his name, says as a father himself he’s “responsible” with the product and doesn’t advertise that he sells it. The product is kept in a case at the front of the store where store employees ask to see ID before a sale, he said.
“I do know what is OK and what is not OK,” he said. “All I can say is, I do the right thing.”
The Fullwood Express owner takes issue with police and health-care professionals labeling it as “synthetic marijuana.” But the store stocks limited quantities of the product, he said, just in case the law changes to ban these products, too.
“It’s not synthetic marijuana – that stuff was banned. It is potpourri. It’s not sold for any other reason,” he said. “We can’t control what people choose to do with it.”
A store employee of the Smoker’s Depot in Mint Hill sees the product differently. The shop, at 7102 Brighton Park Drive, in the Mint Hill Pavilion, stocks several brands but notes “it’s not selling like it used to” when compared with its pre-ban companion products. The employee, who wouldn’t give his name, said most customers in Mint Hill who buy brands like Halo, Zomba or Bob Marley, are at least 35 years old.
“It’s synthetic marijuana, it’s not something natural and can cause bad reactions. It’s made to get you high,” he said. “People think ‘I can still catch a quick buzz without the smell of marijuana or the kids finding out.’”
“When this hit the scene, no one knew what to make of it. It’s not healthy, but it’s a choice,” he said. “If you do it right, you can get a nice high. If you don’t, you can end up in the hospital.”
Matthews hospital, urgent care sees local impact
As a board certified emergency medicine physician, Dr. Charles Bregier has seen the effects of synthetic marijuana on local patients. As the medical director of Presbyterian Hospital’s urgent care centers, he tracks designer drugs and has become an advocate for community education about their dangers.
Though Presbyterian can’t track the number of patients its emergency rooms and urgent care centers see as a result of taking synthetic marijuana, Bregier says anecdotal evidence suggests the use of the product is on the rise locally, including in Matthews. Bregier says patients who have taken the drug – even in its legal form – have “erratic, bizarre behavior.” The product can produce severe anxiety attacks, psychosis, vomiting, rapid heart rates and even heart attacks. Some users become suicidal or have thoughts of harming others, he said.
“It’s certainly something that we, as a community, need to get up in arms about,” he said. “It’s not like it’s a particular drug that has an antidote that we can say ‘Oh, if I only knew they had this one product I could give them this to get better,’ so you end up treating the patient’s symptoms rather than treating the patient. It’s often a matter of multiple drug ingestions and with synthetic products you don’t even know what’s in them.”
The unknown is the problem, said Jeffrey Scott, a DEA agent and agency spokesman based in Washington, D.C.
“The fact is, you can put anything in those packages and label them as anything and there’s no way to tell what’s in the package just by looking at them in the store,” he said. “It’s really Russian roulette. There’s no quality control, there’s really no telling what’s in them and how they’re going to act in your body.”
A father of three daughters, Scott recently talked with his 15-year-old about the dangers of synthetic marijuana and its legal forms found in convenience stores near her school.
“The idea that these things are legal is attractive to young adults. It’s a way of getting a legal high,” he said. “I took the time not as an agent, but as a parent, to sit down with my daughter and explain these things. Simply because it’s legal doesn’t mean that it’s safe.”