"Spice" is back.
Just months after Virginia and dozens of other states banned synthetic marijuana, the chemists who make it have found a way to outfox lawmakers.
Spice manufacturers, who spray herbs with compounds that mimic the active ingredient in marijuana, have altered their recipes just enough to skirt the bans and are again openly marketing spice in stores and on the Web. Some users report that the new generation of products could be more potent than the original formulas, which have sickened hundreds nationwide and been linked to deaths.
Spice, commonly sold in colorful packets as "herbal incense," is smoked to get high. A new National Institute on Drug Abuse study found that it is the second- most frequently used illicit substance among high school seniors, behind marijuana.
Some users have experienced seizures, hallucinations, vomiting, anxiety and an accelerated heart rate, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Virginia, one of about 40 states that regulate spice, in March made it a crime to have or sell spice that contains any of 10 chemicals often used in the mixture. The same month, the DEA issued a 12-month nationwide emergency prohibition on five compounds. Maryland is also considering restrictions, and the D.C. Council is weighing a ban.
But prosecutions of three of the largest spice busts in Virginia — including one in Falls Church — have hit roadblocks because the spice that police seized does not contain banned chemicals listed in state law. Authorities in Florida, Indiana, Illinois and Alaska have encountered similar problems.
"I don't know whether we are going to be able stay one step ahead of these chemists," said Richard Trodden, Arlington County’s top prosecutor and a member of Virginia's crime commission.
In the Falls Church case, police in June raided a tobacco shop near two schools, seizing 1,700 packets of synthetic marijuana. But the 34 spice samples tested from Arabica Tobacco contained only nonrestricted active ingredients, according to court papers.
The case is scheduled to go to court next month, and prosecutors declined to say whether it will go forward. A reporter did not find spice on sale there this month, and an owner declined to comment on the case.
The emergence of spice
Spice caught the attention of law enforcement in 2008 and has exploded in popularity. The mixes, made with the synthetic version of compounds known as cannabinoids, are sold for about $15 to $25 a gram. One Web site - am-hi-co.com - advertises "Legal products available for each state!"
A member of the Falls Church School Board, which pushed for the state spice ban, said she is frustrated it remains on the market.
"To the extent that these makers are putting out a product that's harmful to kids, that’s going to bother me and every other school board member out there," Vice Chairman Susan Kearney said.
The problem for lawmakers is thorny. There are potentially hundreds of synthetic cannabinoids that makers could substitute for the banned ones — and that is exactly what has happened.
In July and August alone, Virginia's forensic lab tested 468 spice samples sent by police statewide. Only 101 included banned substances.
Virginia lawmakers anticipated that spice makers might switch formulas, so they included a provision in the law that controls chemicals intended to act in a similar fashion as the banned ones. So far, it has not led to any prosecutions.
State scientists say they cannot offer testimony to juries to prove reformulated spice is similar to the original versions — not enough is known about the compounds.
"There's not enough foundational research done on these chemicals on which to base our testimony," said Linda Jackson, a chemistry program manager for the state lab.
The problems with enforcement come as the substance is exacting a higher toll. Annual calls to poison control centers about spice have more than doubled nationwide, to about 6,300 this year, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. In the Washington area, there were 65 calls to the National Capital Poison Center last year and 85 through August 2011.
A recent study found a possible link between spice use and heart attacks in three Texas teens. An eighth-grader in Pennsylvania who had reportedly smoked the drug from a Pez dispenser died in October after a double lung transplant.
In June 2010, David Rozga, an Iowa 18-year-old who had just graduated from high school with a 3.5 grade-point average and planned to attend college, smoked synthetic marijuana, his father said.
Rozga became agitated and told his friends "he felt like he was in hell," his father said. A short time later, Rozga went home and shot himself in the head. Police implicated use of synthetic marijuana as a factor in his suicide.
"Our whole world was taken out from under us," said Mike Rozga, David’s father. "We are in a new age of drug dealing when you can walk into a local mall, convenience store or go online and buy this stuff."
Prepared for the bans
Whatever the dangers, spice makers were ready for the bans.
Two weeks after Virginia outlawed synthetic marijuana, Hampton police seized 842 packets worth more than $8,000 from Outer Edge Gifts, a Hampton Roads area head shop.
Police said the high-profile bust was intended to send the message that spice was not welcome. Local media photographed seized drugs laid out neatly on a table.
But when the cameras turned away, the case crumbled. Police said forensic tests showed the synthetic marijuana did not contain banned compounds. They never filed charges.
A man who identified himself as the owner of Outer Edge Gifts, but declined to give his name, said suppliers went so far as to include results of lab tests showing the spice did not have the newly banned ingredients.
"I told the police straight up what we were selling was legal," the man said. "We had results from a DEA-registered lab."
A raid in which $10,000 worth of synthetic marijuana was seized from a Newport News hookah bar has not resulted in charges, either. The owner did not return calls, but he told a local newspaper in September that he was selling a new version of spice.
State Sen. Mark R. Herring (D-Loudoun), who wrote Virginia’s spice law, said it has helped educate people about the dangers of the drug and encouraged reputable retailers to stop selling it. But he said that more needs to be done. He said legislation is being written that would add six compounds to the banned list.
Lawmakers on the federal level are also taking a more comprehensive approach by seeking to ban spice compounds, as well as classes of chemical structures on which synthetic marijuana compounds are commonly built.
The initial appeal of spice was as a legal high, but it remains popular because most drug tests will not pick it up and it is readily available from dozens of Web sites.
"We had guys with Pentagon security clearance badges coming in to buy it," said Alan Amsterdam, co-owner of Capitol Hemp in Adams Morgan. Although he stopped selling spice, he is dubious about efforts to control it.
"The government is one step behind science," Amsterdam said. "It's here to stay."