Law enforcement officials are struggling to outpace the constantly evolving makeup of the drug called “spice,” one that’s sold as incense or potpourri but has caused thousands of emergency-room visits and some deaths.
Commonly called “spice,” or misleadingly referred to as “synthetic marijuana” or “legal herb,” the chemicals that create a high are known to cause seizures, comas, serious kidney injuries and heart damage, with some people not making it out of the high alive.
“We’re constantly battling inside of our system to keep up,” said Rob Reardon, corrections director with the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office.
The agency on Wednesday hosted a forum focused on substance abuse, where Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Abendroth gave a closer look into where the drug comes from, how it’s produced and how its distributors work to circumvent the law.
Even though the federal government continues to outlaw the continuously changing versions of the compound, its Chinese-based creators are quick to add a new element to the drug to distribute it to the U.S. as industrial resin or dye. The white powder is then mixed with acetone — better known as paint thinner — and sprayed onto leafy material and packaged as potpourri or incense that’s “not for human consumption.” Yet it’s marketed with flavors like grape, strawberry and bubblegum.
Although not listed as a scheduled drug, it still illegal to possess or distribute for human consumption, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“It’s like putting out little fires. Just when you think you’ve got it, something else pops up,” Abendroth said.
The synthetic drug has led to at least one Lafayette death, when 21-year-old Alexandria Shelton, a Grambling State University senior from Ossun, died in Girard Park in 2014 after smoking a version of the drug called AB-CHMINACA, a chemical that’s been linked to at least one other death in Louisiana, Abendroth said.
It took more than six months after Shelton’s death for the state Department of Health and Hospitals to outlaw AB-CHMINACA. When it did, the department cited at least 125 Baton Rouge-area emergency room visits related to the compound.
The delay in banning the substances is a common hold-up in keeping the drug under control, Abendroth said.
Once a substance is identified and labeled as a controlled dangerous substance, the government must present a notice that it’s considering outlawing the compound and provide a 30-day public-comment period before an emergency ban may be imposed.
“The illicit market reacts, and they get another chemical out there,” Abendroth said.
Federal penalties for distributing synthetic drugs include up to 20 years in prison for a first offense.
Lafayette criminal defense attorney Daniel Stanford received a 10-year, one-month federal prison sentence in January 2015 on drug and money-laundering charges in a federal investigation of a local smoke shop franchise. The business, Curious Goods, sold more than $5 million worth of the drug branded as Mr. Miyagi over a 10-month period in 2011 before authorities raided the property.
Six other people charged in the case received prison sentences ranging from three to 10 years after pleading guilty.
Abendroth was one of the prosecutors in that case.
Editor’s note: This article was changed on Feb. 2, 2016, to note that the substance used for what’s known as synthetic marijuana is illegal to possess or distribute for human consumption. The article was also changed to note that Alexandria Shelton smoked AB-CHMINACA prior to her death.