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Police Threaten Utah Sellers of Spice

Marijuana alternative is legal—for now.

By Jesse Fruhwirth
Photo by Jesse Fruhwirth // Spice: Not for smoking.
Posted // June 29,2010 - You have to wonder what the police are smoking. This past winter and spring, while the Unified Police Department spewed PR to convince Salt Lake County residents its new service fee was necessary and judicious, some UPD officers were gearing up to enforce a vague law regarding a legal drug called spice. Only after conducting several staff trainings and threatening local sellers did police learn the district attorney—whom they did not consult—currently refuses to prosecute spice cases.

In May, UPD hand-delivered letters containing threats of investigation to nearly 10 head shops that sell spice products. For now, those threats appear to be totally hollow, since Salt Lake District Attorney Lohra Miller says she will not file charges for sale, distribution nor possession of spice until the Legislature passes an explicit ban. Rep. Tim Cosgrove, D-Murray, plans to sponsor legislation to prohibit spice.

Spice is a generic name for dozens of brand-name leafy products infused with chemicals similar to THC—a psychoactive cannibinoid in marijuana—that has a similar effect when smoked. The products are labeled as incense and usually say “not for human consumption,” but many consumers—and police—know better than that.

Although purchasing the product is legal, police have kept busy investigating spice. In a records request, City Weekly discovered that the State Crime Lab just this year has analyzed more than 50 samples of spice—some of it found in probationers' pipes also containing marijuana residue—on behalf of law enforcement agencies. The analysis is “quite expensive and quite difficult,” Cosgrove says. UPD also hosted seven trainings regarding spice for its officers during June.

Spice products contain a variety of psychoactive chemicals, but JWH-018 is the chemical discovered in “almost all” samples analyzed by the State Crime Lab, according to documents.

JWH-018, aka "Spice," Infosheet From Utah Bureau of Forensic Services

How can police make threats against shopkeepers if spice is legal? It’s called the “psychotoxic chemical" statute and, in theory, it outlaws sale or consumption of any chemical—even nitrous oxide in a can of whipped cream, for example—if the purchaser intends to consume the substance to cause “intoxication, inebriation, excitement [or] stupefaction.” While other county attorneys may decide differently, Miller says the psychotoxic chemical statute does not provide adequate notice to defendants that spice is illegal. “The law has to be very clear,” she says.

Miller says she became aware of the issue a couple weeks ago after a staff prosecutor filed a felony drug charge against a spice producer. Miller says that prompted “a lot of internal discussion” earlier this month, which eventually lead to Miller’s decision that the case should be dismissed and no future spice cases should be filed unless or until the Legislature clarifies the law.

If UPD Sgt. Stanton VanWagoner gets his way, the law will be clarified soon. According to e-mails obtained through a records request, VanWagoner, an officer in the county’s drug court, first e-mailed Sheriff Jim Winder’s administrative assistant, Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake, about a bill to “criminalize this THC imitator.” In May, he wrote to Biskupski that the letters delivered to shops that sell spice would “at least … drive the drug underground or sellers will advise buyers to sign forms indicting [sic] they will not be using the drug to get high.”

The scare tactic worked, somewhat. Two Salt Lake City spice sellers who City Weekly contacted said they stopped selling it, due to legal concerns. A third shop, however, said sales of spice have skyrocketed since other shops stopped selling it and TV news stations KSL-5 and ABC 4 first alerted many customers to the fact that a legal product similar to marijuana even existed.

For now, that shop—which asked not to be named for fear of future police retaliation—has no cause for alarm. VanWagoner says “there’s no reason” to investigate sellers or users of spice. The letter bearing his name that threatened investigations, he said, was written and delivered to head shops before he learned of Miller’s opinion two weeks ago. “I will acquiesce to the DA’s decision,” he says.

VanWagoner admits that very little scientific research has been done regarding spice. He’s aware of only one German study that documents one individual case of suspected addiction to spice, and that other research into spice toxicity is lacking. “We can’t claim this is harmful to human physiology because we don’t know,” he says. But that doesn’t matter much because the problem with spice, as VanWagoner sees it, is simply that people are getting high.

“Something that alters your time-space and reactionary abilities, anything that would stupefy the senses, make one intoxicated and [impedes] your ability to operate a motor vehicle would be of a concern,” VanWagoner says.

Alcohol, which is sold in Utah exclusively by the state government--net profit of $59 million in 2009--(pdf)--is not prohibited under the psychotoxic chemical law, although that chemical has been involved in 436 impaired-driving deaths (pdf) in Utah since 1999. Utah State Medical Examiner Todd Grey said he’s unaware of a single case in which spice was linked to a death.

Drug-war critics think prohibiting spice would exacerbate any problems that spice may present. “Looking deeply into the problem, people are looking to alter their state of mind. … No matter what it is, prohibited or not, they’re still going to do it,” says University of Utah Students for Sensible Drug Policy President Valerie Douroux. “The only difference is ... if it’s illegal, it jams our court system [so the courts are less able] to deal with people with crimes like child kidnapping, murder and robberies.”

Grant Smith, of Drug Policy Alliance, based in New York City, advocates for an age limit for purchase of spice, but no more regulation than that. “Strict prohibition of any kind of product or drug has not worked,” he says. “The war on drugs has failed by almost every measure.” Smith also says that spice, with its unknown health impacts and synthetic ingredients, is an unfortunate byproduct of prohibition itself. “The irony is that, of course, we have a drug that’s illegal—marijuana—that’s been studied rigorously, has medicinal value, has low toxicity … and people want it,” Smith says. “Then we have this other substance … that is legal and people are using it because they don’t want to be stigmatized and criminalized for using marijuana.”

Cosgrove, the Murray Democrat who has agreed to sponsor legislation to ban spice, said he believes prohibition “makes society safer,” though he could not provide an example of when a drug prohibition actually reduced the usage of a banned substance. “I guess it’s nothing more than a belief,” he says.

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Posted // August 1,2010 at 14:30

And one thing not mentioned is the people that are victims of "a bad exchange." often leading to injury or death. my brothers best firend was gunned downed in the middle of the street due to an untrustworth "dealer," not only taking his life but changed all the peoples live that knew/loved this person.

if drugs where legal then it would essentially remove all murders and other violent crimes assoicated with these drugs.

just one thing i think was not mentioned on that list of supporting prohibition.

As for spice, should it be illegal,yes. if other simular substances are illegal then as should spice. take pain killers for instance, lortab and oxycotton are different compounds and yet deliver the same "high." both are illegal drugs if not perscribed. should the same be for spice and marijuana? i think so. i am shocked it has taken them this long to decide if it should or shouldn't be illegal.

but i do know this, as long as it is legal people are going to buy it, why go through the hassle of a drug dealer and the underground drug world full of people with questionable moral fiber, and not to mention of getting the fear incarceration when you could simple stroll to your local gas station or smoke shop and pick some up for 10-50 dollars and get a reciept and some customer service.

this is my first time commenting on on anything over the internet. so i hope i could add some valid topics at debate.


Posted // July 13,2010 at 14:46

Wow why isnt anyone mentioning the manufacturers of this stuff? Who is making all this money??!!the same folks that brought us oxycotin or budweiser?


Posted // July 27,2010 at 16:25 - That's a very good question, Kyle, but unfortunately I didn't have the time or opportunity to get into that. I was provided a tip of a local guy who is supposedly producing this stuff, but I never made contact with him. I called two other manufacturers who did not call me back. My gut tells me that corporate giants--with lots of cash for injured people to win--wouldn't risk a product liability case regarding the the thinly-veiled and totally transparent request to use the product as incense. But yours remains an open question for another day. Thanks for it.


Posted // June 29,2010 at 23:17

PS - "Note: A method to test for these SPICE compounds in blood or urine has not been developed." - Utah Bureau of Forensic Services.

That comes from the document linked above obtained through a records request of the state crime lab.

Marijuana: illegal, detectable

Spice: legal, undetecable

Question is, if spice becomes illegal and detectable, will anyone still use it?


Posted // October 14,2010 at 17:08 - update: 10-14-10: I've since learned but not confirmed that one lab in Pennsylvania can test human fluids for presence of Spice.


Posted // June 29,2010 at 10:21

“Something that alters your time-space and reactionary abilities, anything that would stupefy the senses, make one intoxicated and [impedes] your ability to operate a motor vehicle would be of a concern"...

Gee, based on this rhetoric, I wonder why they're not also trying to criminalize prescription drugs. Fuzzy logic? Nah, just complete morons out of touch with reality.


Posted // June 29,2010 at 08:29

Like it or not, there has never been, and nor will there ever be, a drug-free society; the use of addictive or recreational drugs is a natural part of human existence. Nobody here is claiming that any substance is beneficial for either the individual or society. It is true however that certain substances help the soul heal and relieve pain while others provide short-term relief from a monotonous existence at the risk of possible long-term health problems.

An important aspect of Individual freedom is the right to do with yourself as you please as long as your actions cause no unnecessary suffering or direct harm to others. Many among us may disagree with this, and they should be free to believe what they wish, but the moment they are willing to use force to impose their will on the rest of us, is the exact same moment that the petty criminals/dealers, the Mafia, drug barons, terrorists and corrupt government officials/agencies enter the equation. The problems created by self harm then rapidly pale into insignificance as society spirals downwards into a dark abyss, while the most shady characters and 'black-market corporate entities' exponentially enrich themselves in a feeding frenzy likened to that of piranhas on bath-tub meth.

The second biggest business during prohibition in Detroit was liquor at $215 million a year and employing about 50,000 people. Authorities were not only helpless to stop it, many were part of the problem. During one raid the state police arrested Detroit Mayor John Smith, Michigan Congressman Robert Clancy and Sheriff Edward Stein.

Drug cartels are ready to show that when it comes to business they also like to be nonpartisan. They will buy-out or threaten politicians of any party, make deals with whoever can benefit them, and kill those who are brave or foolish enough to get in their way.

If you support prohibition then you've helped trigger the worst crime wave in history.

If you support prohibition you've a helped create a black market with massive incentives to hook both adults and children alike.

If you support prohibition you've helped to make these dangerous substances available in schools and prisons.

If you support prohibition you've helped raise gang warfare to a level not seen since the days of alcohol bootlegging.

If you support prohibition you've helped create the prison-for-profit synergy with drug lords.

If you support prohibition you've helped remove many important civil liberties from those citizens you falsely claim to represent.

If you support prohibition you've helped put previously unknown and contaminated drugs on the streets.

If you support prohibition you've helped to escalate Theft, Muggings and Burglaries.

If you support prohibition you've helped to divert scarce law-enforcement resources away from protecting your fellow citizens from the ever escalating violence against their person or property.

If you support prohibition you've helped overcrowd the courts and prisons, thus making it increasingly impossible to curtail the people who are hurting and terrorizing others.

If you support prohibition you've helped evolve local gangs into transnational enterprises with intricate power structures that reach into every corner of society, controlling vast swaths of territory with significant social and military resources at their disposal.


Posted // August 20,2010 at 04:01 - Wow! Well said. Thank you.