Incense or intoxicant? Murky state laws don't stop trade in synthetic marijuana sometimes called 'spice'
Jan 27, 2013 (Herald-Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
The Garden of Eden has only a thin strip of pavement for a parking lot. But on a typical day, visitors stream in and out of the adult entertainment shop like ants to a hill.
A handful of spots will do when no car stays more than two minutes.
On a recent Tuesday starting at 11:45 a.m., the next hour saw more than 20 cars trade places in the lot. Nearby business owners call that a slow day for the Bloomington establishment, which is normally open 24 hours, leading some to wonder how much lingerie one store could warehouse.
But only a couple of customers come out with bags. Most stop at the register to the left of the front door, skipping the toys, movies and scented oils. They step to the counter, lean toward the cashier and whisper, "Do you have herbal incense "
"Three grams " the man says.
No small talk. No IDs. Bills are passed across the counter, sometimes without words exchanged. Customers leave with wrappers splashed with flashy names such as "Diablo," "Bizzaro" or "Black Mamba" stuffed into a front pocket. This week, the product is called "Darkness: Purple Haze."
A cashier at the Garden of Eden -- the same store that sold herbal incense to a reporter from The Herald-Times on Jan. 17 -- denied having the product on-site when reached by phone Monday. Kuldeep Singh, the proprietor of GKS Investments, which owns the Garden of Eden and a Marathon gas station in Indianapolis, was reached by cellphone Tuesday but said he could not talk because he was in Chicago on business; on Wednesday, a call was cut short because he claimed he had bad reception. Several voicemails and a text message requesting comment were not returned.
On Friday and Saturday, the store was closed.
Surely, the Garden of Eden doesn't want to draw attention to dealings with herbal incense, what regulators call synthetic marijuana, a mix of chemicals designed to mimic the effects of the hallucinogen THC. Last week, the cashier assured buyers that the product is legal. And he could be right, because manufacturers of the drug are constantly experimenting with new molecular models to outpace laws that ban specific compounds.
In July, President Barack Obama signed a federal law banning 31 compounds used in herbal incense, once popularized as "K2" and "Spice."
But some sellers of the drug promise to provide forms of synthetic marijuana and "cannabinoids" not listed in Indiana's laws. Confusion between federal and state regulations, and between what is being advertised for sale and what is actually being stuffed in packets for the Garden of Eden, has left police powerless until a controlled buy is tested at a state laboratory.
Bloomington police have acquired the "Darkness" product, according to Lt. Bill Parker. But it can take months for results to confirm whether a product has a banned mix.
When the Garden of Eden was burglarized Jan. 8, the store reported synthetic marijuana was stolen, but police couldn't penalize the operation because there is a chance Indiana law doesn't cover the formulation of chemicals in the newest wrapper.
"You have to send it to a lab to see what ingredients are in the product, because they are always changing them," Parker said. "The field tests aren't there yet."
In the meantime, patrons left the Garden of Eden with this "aromatic" product and walked across Walnut Street to Stimline in search of rolling papers. There, users could find every degree of paraphernalia, but not herbal incense.
Through storefront windows facing the Garden of Eden, employees at nearby businesses can't help but watch "the show."
A hairdresser at a salon on the other side of Walnut Street said she can count 12 cars leaving the store in about 10 minutes, calling this stream of repeat customers "the walking dead." Multiple business owners, within yards of the shop, view traffic across the street as a symbol of the decay of their commercial strip, but most refused to be quoted because of fear they might be targeted by patrons of the Garden of Eden.
On the other hand, Shannon Simpson, the owner of Genuine Tattoo Co., was unwilling to denounce anyone for their personal choices while frequenting the shop across the street. He was more disgusted to hear synthetic marijuana exists.
"They should just legalize the real stuff," he said. "Get rid of all the fake stuff."
Indiana House Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, actually believes it is misleading to call the drug synthetic "marijuana," because it gives people the impression that what they are smoking will give them a similar high. But from what state legislators have heard from emergency room doctors, the high from herbal incense is more reminiscent of PCP, or "Angel Dust," often leaving users agitated and consumed by intense hallucinations.
Police and legislators alike know the drug is harmful, but Pierce said regulation to ban imitation pot would be too vague and could come under attack for not giving individuals their constitutional right to know and follow the law. Indiana bans more than 60 chemical compounds, including "analogs" of certain molecular models, covering variations of the same carbon backbone structure.
In an effort to keep pace with manufacturers of herbal incense, Indiana House Bill 1196 allows the state's pharmacy board to add new compounds to the list, if the federal Drug Enforcement Agency or another state has determined a chemical mimics THC and should be banned. The law also added provisions to revoke a store's retail license if it was found to be selling brands with banned chemicals, hoping to persuade convenience stores and gas station chains to get out of the herbal incense business.
Tim Sylvester, a manager for Stimline, said his variety shop will not sell chemical incarnations of herbal incense. He has looked out the front door of his business and seen people vomiting shortly after a puff of the synthetic drug.
"There are some cokeheads who wouldn't touch that stuff, because they are using chemicals and no one knows what they do," Sylvester said of synthetic marijuana. "When they first advertised it, they said it was 10 times stronger than marijuana. Back then, it probably wasn't. But at this point, it probably is."
Those who see the traffic coming in and out of Garden of Eden can't help but think that the herbal incense in Bloomington has some kind of addictive element.
Cars wind around the last southward stretch of College Avenue before bending east and whipping back north into the parking lot. Other vehicles make illegal left-hand turns off of Walnut Street to briefly swing by the shop's front door. Panhandlers are also a common sight around automobiles parked in its lot, fishing in what has become a target-rich environment.
Burglaries have been reported involving spice, including the Jan. 8 incident at the Garden of Eden, where glass smoking devices and "synthetic spice" were taken, according to a police report. In August, Bloomington police arrested a 26-year-old woman who had broken into a smoke shop off of Winslow Road. She told officers she was desperate for K2 or Spice.
A scarcity of herbal incense sellers only heightens demand for the product. Even the wholesale market consists of mixed opinions on the product's legality for Hoosiers. When contacted by phone, Liberty Herbal Incense, based in California, said it would not ship its product to Indiana because of the state's tight regulations against synthetic marijuana.
On the other hand, a rep with "Blackout Herbal Incense" told The Herald-Times he could ship his product, manufactured by iLCM as "Funky Monkey" or "Dead Man," to Indiana in 24 4-gram packets at about $12 per unit. The company lists only a few states, such as Georgia, Kentucky and Utah, as places it won't sell its products because of specific bans. Georgia, for instance, has "Funky Monkey" and "Dead Man" on a list of outlawed brands.
Stimline sells herbal blends without chemical elements, but Sylvester has researched synthetics to see if they are available from wholesalers. Most manufacturers will not ship the product to Indiana, he said, because the law casts a wide net.
"You do have your reckless types who will thumb their noses at the law, and they believe, as long as they aren't using any of the banned chemicals, they are OK," Sylvester said. "But just because it's unclear what chemicals are in it doesn't mean it shouldn't be illegal."
Whatever is in it brings a multitude of patrons back to the adult entertainment shop on South Walnut Street; never mind that the product isn't meant to be smoked. The package says: "Not for human consumption."
Onlookers to "the show" doubt there would be such a rush on potpourri.
"What is in the product I don't know," Sylvester said. "There is a lot of shadiness around it."
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