KINGMAN - Local law enforcement officials are celebrating a victory this week following Gov. Jan Brewer's signing of a new law banning the sale and use of synthetic drugs that mimic the effect of marijuana.
Last Friday, Arizona became the 12th state to ban products such as "Spice" and "K2," which are often marketed as herbal incense for aromatherapy, but have gained a reputation as an effective legal substitute for marijuana when directly smoked. A news release sent from the governor's office Tuesday stated that such products, which consist of a plant-like material sprayed with a combination of synthetic chemicals, can produce hallucinatory effects "up to 700 times more potent than the active ingredient in marijuana, and can result in seizures, stroke, anxiety, visual disturbances, racing heartbeat and elevated blood pressure."
Despite that alarming assertion, however, the director of Hualapai Mountain Medical Center's Emergency Department, Dr. Frank Paul, said that while he has seen a few cases where patients will come in exhibiting some of the above symptoms, it's difficult to get anyone to admit that Spice is the cause.
"Unless they admit to it or you can find it on them, it's extremely hard to determine with diagnostic testing," Paul said. "The testing that's available, almost universally in the United States for these synthetic cannabinoids, is not adequate."
Despite its local availability, law enforcement says they haven't found synthetic marijuana products playing any substantial role in DUI stops or similar drug-related incidents in Kingman to date.
"I'm not aware of any issues we've had as far as officers coming across that," said Kingman Police Captain Rusty Cooper.
"But I'm confident that it is harmful to whoever does decide to use it, and if it impairs somebody's ability to safely operate a vehicle, then the object is to protect people."
KPD Chief Robert DeVries said the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police first became aware of the concerns surrounding Spice and related products early last year.
"We became concerned because other states were experiencing cases of overdose related to it," DeVries said. "It's something that, you see it occurring in another area and it's a problem. I think it was a very good, proactive measure by Gov. Brewer and the state getting ahead of that."
DeVries said he is aware of several area smoke shops that stocked Spice-like products. He said officers have already been sent to inform these businesses that they must take those products off the shelf.
Rick Lallememt is the proprietor of one such business, the Kingman Smoke Shop, located in a plaza at 2601 Stockton Hill Road. While he has already removed the outlawed products from his shelves, Lallememt said he's already begun replacing them with substitutes he says do meet the requirements of the new law.
"A lot of the manufacturers were ahead of the law and have made up incense that is legal under this new law," he said. "For everything we have in the store, we have a lab report on it that shows the banned substances in Spice are not in the products we carry, so they're compliant."
One of Lallememt's cashiers, Toni Kerns, said this isn't the first time the smoke shop has had to pull some Spice products, only to restock with a substitute. In late November, the Drug Enforcement Agency enacted an emergency ban on five chemicals prevalent in most Spice products, and within days, new products minus the banned chemicals were back on the shelves.
"I had 20 different kinds at one point," Kerns said. "I had K2, I had Black Mamba, Judgment Day, Armageddon, Fear and Loathing, Fear and Loathing II ... If I were to bring in every kind of 'Spice' that was out, it would have covered the whole store."
Some customers, she added, would explicitly state that they were on probation, and wanted something that wouldn't come up in a drug test. Lallememt acknowledged that the difficulty detecting it is part of the product's appeal, though he agreed with Kerns that many the people who do use it don't match the traditional stereotypes.
"A lot of people use it to relax, they'd have aches and pains, things like that," he said. "Anybody from 18 years old to 78 years old would buy it. It was surprising how many older people would use it."
Lallememt said that, while he's never used the drug himself - he stopped smoking 20 years ago - he has spoken to some of his customers about their experiences with the synthetic marijuana products he sells. He said he's had yet to hear of any of the horror stories being circulated by law enforcement and anti-drug advocates.
"Nobody knows anybody who's had any ill effects over it, freaking out and winding up in the emergency room," he said. "They have been a little put off by the new law, but we're just now starting to get the new stuff in."