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Drug crackdown: Arizona House makes first move to spike spice

Concerns about spice have prompted Kansas, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas and Missouri to regulate K2, one brand under which spice is sold, or the substance’s active ingredient. (Cronkite News Service, Photo by Rebekah Zemansky)

Concerns about spice have prompted Kansas, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas and Missouri to regulate K2, one brand under which spice is sold, or the substance’s active ingredient. (Cronkite News Service, Photo by Rebekah Zemansky)

Spice, a type of incense users smoke to obtain a high similar to that produced by marijuana, is halfway to being declared illegal in Arizona.

The House on Feb. 3 unanimously passed HB2167, which classifies 10 of spice’s chemical compounds, known as synthetic cannabinoids, as dangerous drugs under Arizona’s drug laws.

The law would become effective immediately upon passage by two-thirds of the Senate and the governor’s signature. It comes as the federal government is moving to institute a one-year ban on five of the compounds used in the herbal incense.

“We will be able to address what is not an overstatement; this is a clear and present danger to our youth in Arizona,” said Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who helped draft the bill.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Amanda Reeve, a Phoenix Republican, said spice has become popular with teenagers.

Montgomery said people who are arrested with small amounts will be eligible for diversion programs on their first two arrests, but the proposed law also will enable prosecutors to bring felony charges that carry stiff prison sentences for sellers.

Spice is marketed as a safe and legal alternative to marijuana, but it carries health risks, Montgomery said.

The product is sold in head shops, a term meaning a retailer that sells drug paraphernalia, and it is packaged as incense with brand names such as K2, Black Mamba and Wicked X.  The cannabinoids are sprayed on a mixture of herbs and spices, and packages contain warnings that contents are not for human consumption.

Reeve said one of the dangers of the product is that the strength varies from brand to brand.

Rep. Matt Heinz, a Tucson Democrat and a physician, said he has treated users at Tucson Medical Center.

Heinz described how he treated one man in early summer who came to the hospital with three friends who had also smoked the herb.

Heinz said the three friends weren’t adversely affected, but the man seeking treatment couldn’t talk, and he suffered from blurred vision, nausea and involuntary movements.

Heinz said those are typical symptoms for users who have a bad reaction, and doctors don’t know what causes them.

“The unpredictability is another serious aspect,” Heinz said.

Reeve said Arizona would join 11 other states that have outlawed the substance.

In November, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration declared an emergency ban on five of the chemicals, but administrative errors have delayed its implementation, said special agent Ramona Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the DEA in Phoenix.

The ban would call for studies to be undertaken on the compounds.

Sanchez said that when the ban takes effect, the compounds will be treated like such Schedule 1 drugs as heroin and marijuana, which are considered to be unsafe, highly abused substances without any medical purposes.

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