Smoke Screen

Incense being misused as legal substitute for pot

Smoke Depot owner Omar Muwalla describes a friend wrapping a crumbly, greenish-brown substance between rolling papers and handing it to him to smoke. Soon, the linear formations of cigars and shelves of swirly glass Hookah pipes in his store became a bit hazy. An oafish feeling took over, his shoulders loosened and his mind eased. Sound familiar? Think again.

The substance, called Black Mamba, is completely legal and sold commercially as incense throughout the Valley. Collectively known as “Spice,” sister brands include K2, Cloud Nine and Green Buddha. All are herbs that might be laced with a variant of THC, the psychoactive substance found in marijuana. The canister’s gold-and-black wrapper warns: “Not for human consumption,” but consumers across the country are smoking Spice like pot and experiencing similar effects. But since it doesn’t contain actual THC, Spice isn’t detectable in drug tests.

Black Mamba has been the preferred brand throughout Las Vegas over the last few months, according to numerous shop owners. Muwalla says Cloud Nine also has been popular at his store. “I can hardly keep them in stock,” he says. “It goes so fast. And it’s all word of mouth.” A gram of Black Mamba costs $20 at his store, and he’s been selling about 200 grams a week for the past three months. A number of shops in Las Vegas say they’ve been selling to anyone, including teenagers.

But just because it’s legal doesn’t mean Spice is safe. In the last two months, a Missouri toxicologist says that he’s seen more than 30 cases of teens with hallucinations, elevated heart rates, vomiting and seizures after using K2.

Las Vegas storeowners say customers are starting to request K2. Spice is still so new that the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services says it hasn’t seen many reports. “It’s on our radar, but there’s not a lot known about it,” spokesman Ben Kieckhefer says.

Users in Las Vegas are experimenting with Black Mamba, K2 and Spice Gold more than any other brands, according to Las Vegas Metropolitan Police narcotics detective Bruce Gentner, and the results haven’t been pretty. “We just had a case where two young men got really sick,” he says. “They bought it at a local smoke shop here, and within minutes of smoking it, they were transported to the hospital with hallucinations, vomiting and panic attacks.”

Black Mamba comes from a plant called Damiana, grown regionally. In its natural form, it’s used in tea and liquor and is a known sleeping aid and aphrodisiac. Although Black Mamba is typically Damiana treated with a THC variant called JWH-018, users can’t be sure what they’re getting, says Gary Boggs, executive assistant of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s office of diversion control.

Though prohibited in most of Europe, the main ingredients in most Spice are not regulated in the United States. The DEA is going through preliminary steps to determine whether the substances in Spice should be federally controlled. Then it will collaborate with the Department of Health and Human Services, a process that could take years.

Kansas recently became the first state to ban the compounds, and two counties in Missouri also have barred the substance. The Missouri Senate will take a second vote to send a bill to the House that would ban it statewide and make possession of Spice a felony. Weber School District in Utah recently banned Spice from school grounds.