Spice manufacturers use new compounds to make product legal

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FULTON- Despite efforts to ban the use of synthetic marijuana, manufacturers found a way to sell similar drugs, legally, in mid-Missouri shops.

KOMU 8 News found shops in Fulton and Auxvasse selling "potpourri" or "incense" that gives users a high similar to illegal, synthetic drugs, using compounds that are technically different but extremely close in chemical structure.

"The legal and illegal packets, there's no real difference in the effects on the body," Fulton Chief of Police Steve Myers said. "It's just the fact that some of them aren't on the list to be illegal."

The product is sold in small packets of approximately 3 to 4 grams. A packet of 3.5 grams cost $20 at one Fulton shop.

Anthony Scalzo, the director of toxicology for St. Louis University and Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center, said he was the first person to report patients using synthetic drugs.

He was reviewing cases for the Missouri Poison Control Center when he began seeing a surge in symptoms including an exceptional elevation in heart rate and blood pressure, agitation, paranoia, seizures and vivid hallucinations.

"One of the cases was a 14-year-old boy who was about ready to jump out of a fifth story window, but his friend stopped him," Scalzo said. "What he saw, I have no idea. But he would have killed himself by accident, doing that."

Scalzo discovered the patients had smoked synthetic marijuana known as K2 or Spice.

"The symptoms were unusual for what you would expect from a drug that's supposed to be like marijuana."

Scalzo said synthetic marijuana is a whole different beast than regular marijuana. Synthetic weed can be 2 to 500 times stronger than THC, he said, making it much more dangerous than regular marijuana. 

He realized it was a problem and by February of 2010, he reported it to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"K2, Spice, potpourri, it doesn't matter what you call it. It all produces the same effects," Scalzo said.

Most of the packets the drugs are sold in say "not for human consumption," which protects manufacturers and people selling the drug from liability.

"They're not saying that you're really ingesting this, or smoking this, or injecting this or eating this. They're saying it's OK, we're not telling you to do that," Scalzo said. "But in the store, where you can buy this, there's a wink and a nod, and a 'come over here and I'll tell you how to really use it.'"

Myers said he recognizes synthetic drugs are a problem in Fulton.

"There have been cases of people committing crimes after smoking these drugs," Myers said.

But he can't stop shops from selling these products since the packets don't contain any banned compounds.

Missouri passed HB 641 in 2011, which outlawed specific chemicals found in synthetic drugs like Spice and K2. 

"We'd banned one chemical, and right now there's probably 80 or 90 chemicals that can trigger cannibanoid receptors in the brain. It's kind of like putting a band-aid on a gun shot wound. We need to do something else," Rep. Shawn Rhoads, R-West Plains, said.

Rhoads, a former drug investigator, sponsored HB 1051 during Missouri's last legislative session. The law would have added more chemicals to the ban. Rhoads said his bill died because the language simply wasn't strong enough to accomplish his goal of banning synthetic drugs.

"We're going to have to reword our law to where it catches all [the chemicals]," Rhoads said, "so that these prosecutors can prosecute the people who are selling this stuff."

Rhoads said he plans to propose a new bill during the coming legislative session.

"I'm trying to get all of the data between all the states that have banned it and see what is our best option, and what is actually the most concrete option. So that we're able to be bullet proof, so to speak." Rhoads said. "We can't have holes in it or something's going to slip through the cracks. We want to outlaw it one last time and be done with it."

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