Use of designer drug herbal incense on rise in Cleveland

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Medical and safety officials are warning about the rising use of a new designer drug in the Cleveland area — and the drug is not coming from the usual suspects.

DESIGNER-DRUGS-SPICE-FAKE-MARIJUANA.JPGAssociated PressThe designer narcotic, commonly known as Spice or K2, sells for from $20 to $50 per packet. The packets contain herbs resembling marijuana that are laced with chemicals that claim to mimic THC, marijuana’s active ingredient.


Users are getting their fixes from local stores instead of from street-corner deals.

The drug is called herbal incense.

The use of the chemically treated substance by some people can lead to adverse effects such as acute psychosis with hallucinations, delusions and bizarre behavior, according to a review published in the April edition of the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine.



Other effects can include violent behavior, seizures, increased heart rate and death, said Dr. Jason Jerry, of the Cleveland Clinic’s alcohol and drug recovery center and lead author of the review.

Last October, Ohio legislation outlawed the product found at many minimarts, gas stations and head shops. In February, the Drug Enforcement Administration made the possession and sale of chemicals used in herbal incense illegal.

Still, hospitals and treatment centers in the state and around the country are seeing a flood of users of the drug.

“We definitely have seen an increase [in cases] over the last year and a half,” Jerry said. “I haven’t noticed a change [decline] since the legislation was passed.”

In the first four months of this year, the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported nearly 2,400 calls nationwide about ingesting or smoking herbal incense — a more than 26 percent increase in calls received through April last year.

The designer narcotic, commonly known as Spice or K2, sells for $20 to $50 per packet. The packets contain herbs resembling marijuana that are laced with chemicals that claim to mimic THC, marijuana’s active ingredient.

It is labeled as “incense” in an attempt to circumvent the law and create an illusion of harmlessness.

“We’ve had designer drugs in the past, but this is the first time they’ve been marketed as something else,” Jerry said. “Because these are sold as legal things, there is a misconception that they are safe. This is definitely not the case.”

He likened the drug’s effect on brain receptors to turning a volume knob.

When a user smokes marijuana, the knob turns to 80 percent. No matter how much is smoked, the user will plateau at 80 percent, Jerry said.

When a user smokes herbal incense, the knob turns to 100 percent. The knob spins past 100 percent when more is smoked, freewheeling as long as the drug is consumed — sometimes to terrifying effect.

“This is so much more powerful than marijuana,” Jerry said.

The effects can be long lasting, he added, citing instances of psychosis weeks and even months after the drug is consumed.

Many patients are admitted to emergency, locked-door psychiatric units, Jerry said.

According to a national study conducted by the University of Michigan last year, most users are young adults, and one in nine high school seniors reported having tried the drug.

Users tend to be middle class and disproportionately male, Jerry said.

The ban on herbal incense has not wiped out access to the drug.

“I’m being told by patients that they are still able to purchase it at gas stations and minimarts,” Jerry said. And users are still coming to the Clinic showing signs of herbal incense use.

The sale, possession and use of herbal incense is illegal, said Dan Tierney, spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General‘s Office. But he could not answer why the narcotics are still for sale on some store shelves in the state.

Herbal incense was seen on store shelves in downtown Cleveland last month. The Cleveland Police Department said they do not know of any area stores that still sell it.

“We have done random checks,” said department spokesman Sgt. Sammy Morris. “We found that the locations were in compliance.”

Jerry said he believes there is no simple solution to the problem.

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