ENID, Okla. — The bright, eye-catching packets are labeled “incense,” “potpourri,” “bath salts” or “spice.” The labels read, “aromatherapy use only” and “not for human consumption.”
But the substances inside the packets are far from the innocent labels and disclaimers make them sound.
Using them produces a marijuana-like, amphetamine-like or LSD-like high, but their adverse effects are powerful.
Enid Police Det. Zeke Frazee is well aware of the frightening aspects of “spice.” He pointed to common side effects, including hallucinations, seizures, extreme paranoia, nausea and dangerously accelerated heart rate. Yet because the products are used simply to get high, people won’t admit using it.
“They don’t tell anyone what they’ve smoked,” Frazee said.
Michelle Hennedy, director of the emergency department at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, agrees.
Patients have come to the emergency room numerous times with symptoms that make the medical staff suspect they are high on “spice” or “bath salts.”
“A lot of what we’re seeing is patients whose behavior is not appropriate,” Hennedy said. “They can be confused, combative, they’re very angry.”
Hennedy said they often are brought in because they have fallen, passed out or some similar incident. She estimates most are between 18 and 40 years old.
But not every user is 18. Amber Fitzgerald, human resources and communications director for Enid Public Schools, said a student at Enid High School was arrested twice in April on charges of public intoxication and possession of drug paraphernalia. The arrests were 19 days apart. A second student also was arrested for public intoxication.
When patients are brought to the hospital with symptoms of drug overdose, physicians can order drug tests – but the tests don’t disclose synthetic drugs.
When patients are asked what they’ve used, “they’re not honest with us,” Hennedy said.
Likewise, there is no standard field test for law enforcement to use in order to find out if a packet of “incense” is a formula already illegal or a newer formula.
“It must be sent to OSBI lab and the result comes back in two to three weeks,” Frazee said.
Frazee said product reviews and instructions for use of “incense” are easy to find online.
“If you go on YouTube, there are kids talking about how to smoke this,” he said.
Some of the online videos Frazee has watched warn that synthetic marijuana is far more potent than marijuana from a plant.
“It’s more like acid or LSD,” Frazee said.
Frazee said synthetic marijuana was first developed in the early 1990s as part of legitimate medical research being done by John Huffman, organic chemistry professor at Clemson University. After Huffman’s research papers were published, entrepreneurs copied his formula and began marketing it.
Gas stations, gift stores and convenience stores sell it in Enid. Sometimes it is kept out of sight and the customer has to ask for it. Other times, it is displayed in plain sight behind the counter, Frazee said. After all, despite its dangerous qualities, it’s a legal product.
Some of the earlier formulas were outlawed in Oklahoma last year, but the people making “spice” tweaked the formula and quickly were back in business.
Store owners Frazee has talked to, said that since it’s not illegal and they make good money off it, they’ll continue to sell it. He said he believes the stores pay $3 to $4 per bag for it.
“When you see it in plain view, they are selling it as incense,” Frazee said. “They know what it does. I’ve even spoken with those store owners and operators. They said it’s legal and they make good money off it, and until it’s illegal, they would continue to sell it. If you have to hide it and it’s selling for $30 a bag, shouldn’t that tell you something?”
Maine Street Mini-Mart is one of the many businesses in Enid that sells “spice.” Store owner A.J. Marand, contacted by telephone on Wednesday, hung up when asked if he would talk about why his business sells the product.
Glen Kuhn, charged with possession of a controlled drug with intent to distribute because his business, Your Quality Store, allegedly stocked illegal “spice” for sale, also declined to comment for this article.
“I’ve talked to people who sell this and they’ve told me a million stories about people who’ve bought this and had bad trips,” Frazee said. “They sell it anyway. It’s about money.”
Because the envelopes are marked “not for human consumption,” and “for aromatherapy use only,” the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate the formulas and no consistency exists from one batch to the next. Additionally, there is no age limit to buy it.
“This stuff is new, so it doesn’t have long-term studies yet as for the effects,” Frazee said.
Hennedy said the more someone uses the product, the more their judgment is skewed, and they can put themselves in danger because they are not thinking clearly. But, while Hennedy worries about the safety of the patients who are using “incense,” she also worries about the safety of the emergency room staff when rendering treatment to them.
“It’s a concern because you never really know what you’re treating,” Hennedy said. “You always want to do the best for the patient. I wonder if they are going to go home and do it again or introduce someone else to it — someone younger.”
“Smoking synthetic marijuana is playing Russian roulette, because you don’t know what it’s going to do to you,” Frazee said.