A new way to get high has led to a jump in medical emergencies linked to a substance known as "fake weed" that despite being banned earlier this year is still openly sold in El Paso shops.
The drug, known as Spice, K2 and other brand names, is a mix of herbs and spices sprayed with synthetic chemicals that have effects similar to those of marijuana.
On Wednesday morning, El Paso County sheriff's deputies and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents served search warrants at seven El Paso shops allegedly selling Spice and bath salts (a synthetic stimulant snorted like cocaine).
Spice was legal until March, when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration declared it a hazard to public safety and placed the chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana in the same category as heroin. In April, the Texas Department of State Health Services issued a ban.
Despite the ban, the substance is still sold as potpourri or incense in little metallic packages marked "not for human consumption" but smoked by consumers looking for a high.
"The caution here is this thing has effects that are more severe than regular marijuana," said Dr. Gilbert Parra, a pharmacist and certified poison specialist with the West Texas Regional Poison Center.
Emergency calls to the poison center by El Paso hospitals and ambulance crews dealing with patients linked to Spice use have tripled. El Paso had 25 Spice-related calls last year compared with 73 so far this year, Parra said.
"It's been increasing, big time," Parra said. The plant material in "fake pot" is typically sprayed with a synthetic compound similar to THC, the high-inducing ingredient in marijuana. Effects can vary due to the amount of synthetic compound in the mixture.
Medical experts said the drug can cause an elevated heart rate, chest pains, nausea, vomiting, enlarged pupils, confusion, shortness of breath, panic attacks and loss of consciousness.
"Normally, people get medical help because they get scared when they have heart palpitations and their heart starts pounding," Parra said.
El Paso County had the third-most synthetic marijuana exposure cases tracked by the Texas poison control center network from January 2010 until Oct. 25 of this year, Parra said. Only the counties of Harris (Houston) and Bexar (San Antonio) had more cases than El Paso.
"We just want to make sure that people understand that this thing is about 10 times stronger than marijuana and these things are not pure -- you don't know how much you will get of these ingredients," Parra said.
In the past few years, smokable herb mixes increased in popularity, marketed as "legal" and creating a marijuana-like high. The typical user is a male in his late teens or early 20s, Parra said.Fort Bliss leadership banned the use of Spice before it became illegal after noticing that some soldiers were using the substance to get high, a post spokesman said.
"Drug abuse is simply not acceptable," Fort Bliss commander Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard wrote in a column about Spice in The Monitor newspaper last March. Pittard mentioned that military investigators had detained five soldiers for possession of Spice.
Fort Bliss spokesman Maj. Myles Caggins said multiple steps are being taken at the Army post to prevent drug use.
Soldiers at Fort Bliss are required to take a urine drug test six times a year, compared with the Army standard of twice a year. There are random barracks and vehicle inspections. And the post's off-limits list includes El Paso businesses that sell drug paraphernalia. In March, the DEA used emergency authority to ban five chemicals (JWH-018, JWH-073, JWH-200, CP-47,497, and cannabicyclohexanol) used to make "fake pot." Unless authorized by law, the designation made possessing and selling the chemicals or products that contain them illegal in the United States.
"Young people are being harmed when they smoke these dangerous 'fake pot' products and wrongly equate the products' 'legal' retail availability with being 'safe,' " DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart said at the time.
Spice manufacturers are not regulated and the product is often bought retail or wholesale through the Internet, a DEA drug fact sheet stated. Several websites selling the products are based in China. In El Paso, "fake weed" (though not by that name) can still be found at specialty shops, mom-and-pop groceries and gas stations selling for $5 to $30 per inch-size package.
An El Paso Times staffer asking for "Spice" earlier this month was turned away from several shops by surprised-looking clerks. It wasn't until advice came from a helpful clerk at one shop that it was found.
"We don't have Spice here. Don't you see it?" the clerk said motioning to rows of small packages of incense next to a row of lotto tickets. "You have to ask for potpourri or incense. You are not suppose to smoke it."
El Paso is a major shipment point for real marijuana, but police have seen a few synthetic marijuana cases and in each case the substance has to be sent to a lab to determine whether it contains the banned chemicals, police spokesman Detective Mike Baranyay said.
Sheriff narcotics investigators said the raids on Wednesday followed undercover buys of the drugs that were then lab-tested for the prohibited chemicals. Arrests are pending. DEA spokeswoman Special Agent Diana Apodaca said the agency had been looking at Spice use in El Paso and worked with the Sheriff's Office on the raids carried out Wednesday.