NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) - Although it is labeled, sold and intended for use as an incense, many people buy spice--a legal synthetic cannabinoid -- for something other than its aromatic abilities.
10 On Your Side's undercover cameras captured customer after customer buying spice incense inside Hampton Pipe and Tobacco on April 20, a holiday celebrated by marijuana smokers. According to the label on spice containers and packets, it is "not for human consumption."
Popular nicknames for spice include: K2, Pep-pourri and Blaze it.
10 On Your Side purchased K2 from Aardvark Glass on Colley Avenue in Norfolk. At Tobacco 4 Less, also on Colley, an employee went offered us 5 grams of "Orange Dragon" spice for $145.
"It's not illegal, it's an incense, it's sold as an incense," said Hampton Pipe and Tobacco owner Dave Mickle.
Norfolk Deputy City Attorney Cynthia Hall says the incense cover is just a smoke screen.
"The whole purpose of this product being out there is to smoke it in pipes, not for any lawful or legitimate purpose," said Hall.
Kansas has made already spice illegal and Missouri is currently working on similar legislation.
One user of marijuana and spice said he got turned on to it by a friend in the military. Spice is among the substances in the Navy's zero tolerance policy, which resulted in several Navy members getting kicked out in March. Still, users say it is undetectable.
"It doesn't turn up on a drug test any type of urinalysis," said the user, who gave the interview under the condition of anonymity.
He described the high as similar to the first time he smoked marijuana.
"Like the very first time," he said. "I sat on that couch for two hours, just smiling...just happy as can be."
But he also described coming down.
"Once you come down you're tired, you're just so tired, you could fall asleep with the pipe in your hand, almost," he said, "On top of that, you just have this headache in your head that is the worst migraine you have ever had."
Despite the crash, this regular spice user says the high is worth it, because spice is legal.
But Norfolk officials like Hall, who discovered spice during a convenience store check. She said she found it odd that it was not with the other incense.
"It's not being used to burn as an incense-type material," said Hall. Then she remembered a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) alert, warning officials to be on the lookout for the substance.
"It's a definite concern," said Norfolk DEA Agent Mike Kennedy. "It's getting on the radar screen for us."
Kennedy and Hall are working with Norfolk Narcotics Investigator Cathy Pederson.
"We're looking at felony charges for these, and it would be prosecuted just like we would prosecute any other drug case," Pederson said.
But spice may be more than just a mix of herbs. Some spice contains HU-210, a schedule I controlled substance, putting it in the same category as cannabis and heroin. The problem with getting spice regulated is that not all spice contains HU-210.
Some spice contains another chemical called JWH-018, which produces effects that are very similar to those associated with smoking marijuana.
"The difference, I would say, is spice you don't need as much to smoke and it lasts about twice as long," said another spice user.
But the only way to know what is really in spice is to test it in a lab. Norfolk officials say they are still waiting on final lab results from the samples they took from Hampton Pipe & Tobacco.
"Unknown chemicals means unknown problems, and people leaving themselves wide open for it," said Kennedy.
As a parent, that's what really concerns Hall.
"If kids are out there smoking it, if their parents think it's an innocuous product, we're hoping that at least the parents, after seeing your report, will be more vigilant and check into the status of this product," she said.
JWH-018, unlike HU-210, is not an illegal schedule I controlled substance, but Norfolk officials still believe it violates Virginia Code--either by being an imitation controlled substance or a designer drug.
"If it's not legal we won't sell it," said Hampton Pipe & Tobacco Owner Dave Mickle.
Mickle says he is just trying to make a living. He says he sells spice as an incense; what customers do with it after they leave is their business.
Officials are also investigating whether Hampton Pipe & Tobacco's exclusive brands of spice 'HPT' and 'Hampster' violate packaging laws for not listing the ingredients.
"We get it from the manufacturer and then we just put our label on it," Mickle said.
Mickle says he is not making his own spice. And when asked if it contains anything more than herbs, he said, "I don't remember, I can't rattle off the exact ingredients."
This uncertainty is why Norfolk city officials took dozens of samples from Mickle's store.
"If they say it's illegal, if they say it's not packaged right, we stop selling it," said Mickle.
One spice user thinks officials are wasting their time.
"We have so many people here in Hampton Roads getting shot and killed every day," the
user said. "Spend our money on something that matters."
10 On Your Side checked in with other Hampton Roads cities. So far, only Norfolk is actively pursuing a Spice investigation.
Until officials make an arrest or specifically ban spice on the books, spice smokers say they will keep on tokin'.
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