CARLSBAD — For years, spice, potpourri and incense have been used by the general population for cooking and making their homes smell sweeter. But that has changed.
Today, those harmless sounding products are finding their way into the hands and bodies of teens and adults in Carlsbad and Eddy County as illicit drugs.
Pecos Valley Drug Task Force Commander Carroll Caudill said the use of spice in Eddy County is becoming a problem.
Termed as synthetic marijuana, spice is sold under many brand names such as Texas Tea, Mystic Monkey Potpourri, K2 Spice and Route 69. Users smoke it or drink it as a tea to get a high.
Sold in glitzy packaging, some dealers charge $20 a gram, about the amount found in an artificial sweetener package such as Sweet’N Low, Caudill said.
“I think at this point it is becoming a real big problem,” he said. “In the last six months the amount of spice we have seized has really increased. It’s becoming a big problem, not just in our county. Law enforcement in neighboring counties and cities are telling us the same thing. That’s why we have been diligent in trying to stop the sale of spice. But it is difficult.”
Last month the task force reportedly seized more than 4,000 packets of spice from a local business and arrested the owner, who is now facing federal charges.
Caudill said up until last year when Gov. Susana Martinez signed a bill making New Mexico the 16th states to ban synthetic marijuana,
law enforcement’s hands were tied. Now that there is a state law — backed by a new federal law signed by President Obama last week — that bans spice and other chemically formed drugs such as bath salts, Caudill said it gives law enforcement agencies such as his the green light to investigate and arrest users and dealers.
In signing the bill last year, Martinez, a former top prosecutor in Dona Ana County, said: “These drugs are no less harmful just because they are known by catchy names and are chemically different than the substances they are supposed to replicate. They can pack a powerful punch and can hold devastating consequences for anyone who uses them.”
Caudill sees it the same way. He said before Martinez signed the bill manufacturers would make a slight change in their spice ingredient, and by that one change, it would become legal and frustrate law enforcement.
With the new federal law in place, changing part or all of the chemical ingredients still makes spice or bath salt illegal. The federal law could land a dealer in federal court, as seen recently by the alleged dealer arrested in Carlsbad.
How are teens and adults in Eddy County getting the product if it is banned in New Mexico?
“It’s all coming from out of state,” Caudill explained. “In the most recent case we worked, the stuff came out of California and Arizona. Some of the stuff was also from China. It’s easy to buy it online and get it sent in the mail. It is very difficult to police when it comes in the mail.
“They are selling it online as incense. But it is not fit for human consumption. The dealers fully know what they are doing. Unlike marijuana, crack and meth, a (drug sniffing) dog doesn’t detect spice. The Postal Service may have a way to detect it, but we don’t.”
Eve Flanigan, Carlsbad Community Anti-Drug/Gang Coalition program manager, who works with teens in Carlsbad and Eddy County, lauded the Drug Task Force’s recent arrest of an alleged local dealer.
“It’s a big problem. We have had teen
s telling us for the past three or four years that they have been using spice and bath salts. There is a strong awareness among teens about the drug, but not among adults,” she said.
Flanigan said parents need to be educated on the products.
“The Food and Drug Administration is now regulating these drugs that have flown under the radar for so long,” she said. “Spice is similar to marijuana in that people mostly roll it and smoke it. The packaging of spice is glitzy and the marketing and packaging can change in a day. The bad thing is there is no labeling on the package telling the user what the product contains. You don’t know what chemical was mixed in.”
According to a publication by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Institute on Drug Use, spice products are popular among young people. Of the illicit drugs most used by high school senior, spice products are second only to marijuana.
Easy access and the misperception that spice products are “natural” and therefore harmless, have likely contributed to their popularity. Another selling point is that the chemicals used in spice are not easily detected in standard drug tests.
To demonstrate the popularity of spice among teens, Flanigan tells a story about a local juvenile probation officer who told seven of her young probationers that she was going to have them tested for spice at the same time.
“She had them together and gave them the opportunity to admit if they had used it before actually having them tested. Every single one of them said they used spice. That was about 18 months ago,” Flanigan said.
Consequences from using spice
Caudill said claims made that spice is safe to use scare him.
“I don’t know if we have had anyone in Carlsbad overdose and die from using spice,” Caudill said. “I read recently about a doctor’s research. He said spice acts more like an amphetamine and not (like) marijuana. He said he had one 14-year-old patient that tried to commit suicide by jumping out of a multi-story office window. Parents need to be very vigilant about what their teens are bringing into the house.”
Flanigan said she has read many publications about the effects of spice and all reported abusers of spice in need of medical attention as a result of their use of the drug showed symptoms that included a rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion and hallucinations. Spice can also raise blood pressure and cause reduced blood supply to the heart. In a few cases, the drug has been linked to heart attacks
She said because spice has flown under the radar for so long, it’s really hard to tell how toxic it may be. But public health officials have voiced concern that there may be harmful heavy metal residues in spice mixtures.
Caudill said while the law is now clear that spice or any other synthetic drug is now illegal to use, still, policing it is not easy.
“It’s one more thing we have to look at,” he added.