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‘Spice,’ a New Drug Threat in Indian Country, Is a Killer of Unknown Legality

A column by Walter Lamar about the health dangers of "spice," or synthetic marijuana.
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You may think spice can be found somewhere in your kitchen, but if you hear young folks talking about it, they probably aren't discussing cinnamon. Chances are, they're talking about synthetic marijuana, which comes marketed as “herbal smoking blends,” or “herbal incense.” The packets contain a mixture of plant matter that has been laced with chemicals that mimic some of the mind-altering reactions of cannabis.

We know from our relatives and training clients that many Native youth see spice as an easy way to get high, but the compounds have unpredictable effects. The packets are usually labeled “Not for human consumption,” and no words could be more true. Commonly reported side effects include anxiety, panic and vomiting, seizures and hallucinations. For some, the extreme paranoia can drive the user to suicidal thoughts. Worse, these products are still found in unregulated smoke shops, convenience stores and among various reservation vendors. In just two years, calls to poison control centers nationwide from people suffering from exposure to synthetic marijuana rose from a few hundred to nearly 3,000 in 2010. This year there have been over 5,000 emergency calls, a clear indication that the problem is increasing nationwide.

Steven Juneau, our Director of Training says, “We see the two main concerns as education and availability. As community members, we need to be aware of the dangers of these drugs. Conversely, officials need to ensure there is diligent regulation of stores and vendors who may introduce these substances into our communities.”

Indeed, alarmed communities have been turning to law enforcement for solutions but the problem of regulation turns out to be a sticky one, in Indian Country more than anywhere. In response to increasingly dire reports nationwide, the DEA moved to issue an emergency 12-month ban in February of this year. But the DEA only banned the six most commonly-fabricated compounds, creating a kind of whack-a-mole effect. With over 450 potential compounds to begin with, and accounting for the many analogs to the prohibited compounds that could banned as “substantially similar” under the vague terms of the Federal Analog Act, dozens of compounds remain legal. Drug manufacturers recognized this loophole a long time ago, so despite the disappearance of once-ubiquitous brands like K2 and Spice, new brands have popped up in their place.

On October 21, the DEA made a similar emergency proclamation banning the chemical compounds used to make “bath salts,” a mind-altering stimulant. Whether the ban will spawn a new batch of untested chemicals drugs remains to be seen. Retailers who carried this product are required to contact the DEA to find out about safe disposal of any remaining inventory.

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By August 2011, 38 states have passed laws that have a much broader reach to prevent the trafficking and use of synthetic cannabis than the temporary DEA ban. Some states, like Colorado, use vague language to include as many synthetic cannabis products as possible but regardless of how the laws are written, they typically don't have any impact in Indian Country, where only the DEA's limited and tentative ban is in effect. As states step up enforcement, our communities may see even more synthetic marijuana products sold by reservation vendors.

Having more synthetic cannabis available in Indian Country communities is bound to bring associated ills: intoxicated drivers, emergency room visits and jurisdictional nightmares for state and Tribal officials trying to sort out whose problem it is. So what can be done to prevent this new and potentially deadly drug threat?

Indian Country Training, a division of Lamar Associates, has long been an advocate of community policing, a topic that is emphasized in all our crime, drug, and gang prevention training. Community policing involves collaboration with service providers and the community to identify problems and apply appropriate resources and responses to address dangerous issues. It begins with understanding the impact or potential impact these substances may have in our communities and our quality of life. Next comes a local analysis of the drug's availability, and the third step is collaborating with important stakeholders—parents, elders, service providers, and coalitions—to implement education and prevention.

Tribal leaders and criminal justice departments can identify outlets where these products are sold and notify the owners in writing of the potential legal issues they may face, both with Federal drug enforcement laws and with liability in the case of an overdose or death. Some communities have used grassroots initiatives to convince retailers to remove the products from their shelves. Tribal governments can also pass their own ordinances, ideally using effective state law and regulation as a template. We must all work with our youth to educate them about the dangers of mind-altering substances, and let all know we will not tolerate the introduction of these and other dangerous substances in our communities.

Walter Lamar, Blackfeet/Wichita, is a former FBI Special Agent, Deputy Director of BIA Law Enforcement and currently President of Lamar Associates. Lamar Associates Indian Country Training Division offers culturally appropriate training for Indian Country law enforcement and service professionals in both on-site and online courses. Visit their website, call 202.543.8181 or email for more information.