Photo Credit: DEA
FAIRBANKS — Synthetic drugs “potpourri” and “bath salts” labeled with the words “not for human consumption” remain in the same legal limbo they were in several years ago when state and federal governments tried to ban them.
They’re still for sale at local retail shops and likely will remain quasi-legal for the foreseeable future in Alaska, where legislators who have tried to ban the drugs have resigned themselves to periodically banning specific chemicals used to make synthetic drugs, leading manufacturers to develop new — and again legal — variations of the products. Federal officials have a similar dilemma.
Users describe products sold as bath salts — which can be smoked, snorted or injected — as similar to the rush from stimulants such as cocaine or methamphetamine. Potpourri, also known as spice or labeled as incense, generally is described by users as a marijuana-like experience when smoked.
Critics say the products can be more dangerous than the drugs users say they simulate. They also can appeal to young people because they are inexpensive and look exciting or have exotic with names such as Bliss, AK-47, YOLO (an acronym for “you only live once”) or Twilight.
“Spice is a synthetic drug that is marketed for human consumption and is purported to have effects similar to that of marijuana. However, based on (my) training and experience as well as ... conversations with users of spice, (I have) learned that the effects are quite different than that of marijuana,” Fairbanks police officer Avery Thompson wrote in an informational note about spice this fall in a criminal complaint for a domestic violence case. “Users of spice oftentimes report memory loss, hallucinations and erratic behavior.”
Although it’s not illegal to own potpourri or bath salts, their use as drugs comes up in a handful of domestic violence and driving under the influence investigations each month in the Fairbanks area. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration has been receiving increased reports related to these drugs since 2009 and in Alaska, especially in the past two years, according to spokeswoman Jodi Underwood in Seattle.
Manufacturers and retailers of synthetic drugs say users should be responsible for their actions if they abuse these products. After all, they say, bath salts and potpourris clearly are marked with labels stating not to use them as drugs, much like the warning on household products commonly used as drugs, such as aerosol cans.
At the Cushman Street Mr. Rock and Roll, one of several local stores that sell potpourri and bath salts in Fairbanks, employees maintain a binder of lab tests to show that all of their products comply with the law and don’t contain any banned substances. The store stocks more than a dozen bath salts and potpourris, including a locally produced potpourri brand called C&J, behind the counter in an adults-only room.
The store is filled with pipes and images of marijuana leaves and products made from hemp fiber, but store customers aren’t supposed to talk about smoking spice to get high, floor manager Brittany Haas said. In fact, it’s frowned upon to call it spice — the slangier street word — instead of potpourri or to call different varieties “flavors” instead of “fragrances.”
“We will ask them [customers] to leave if they even start asking about using it like that,” she said.
Staff are aware that people commonly “do stupid stuff” as Haas put it, with potpourris and bath salts. For this reason, those products are sold differently than the traditional incense sticks and cones, which are available in the all-ages part of the store, she said.
The online retail world is similar to the local market. Psychedelic images marketing synthetic drugs are juxtaposed with official warnings saying not to use them as drugs. It leads to some strange warning labels for taking bath salts, such as on a bag of “Bliss” brand bath salt found at spice-gold-direct.com.
“One application of our bath salts will last for several hours — multiple uses are not necessary,” the online directions states. “Please wait several hours between applications to ensure an optimal bathing experience. After enjoying Bliss for the first time, you will know how best to apply it in the future.”
A personal perspective
In January, Fairbanks resident Justin Cloud said he was tricked by the apparent legality of smoking spice as an alternative to marijuana.
Cloud, 38, said the idea of spice appealed to him because he was trying to get a job as a hydraulics technician on the North Slope, He had heard that unlike marijuana, spice would not turn up in a urine-analysis required for a job. Many former marijuana smokers he knows have made the switch, he said. He also was influenced by his wife, who has a law-enforcement-related job as a mental health counselor and did not approve of his illegal drug use.
But Cloud said his new drug ended up consuming a far bigger part of his life than his old drug.
“It consumes your thoughts, all you want is more and more,” he said. “It’s easy to get, and everyone is smoking it.”
As a marijuana smoker, Cloud estimated he smoked two grams per day of pot. When he switched to spice, which he described as a shorter, more intense high, his consumption first went down then increased significantly. Before long, he was consuming at minimum a $45 10-gram bag of spice per day. His favored brand was “Dr. Feel Good” because it was the strongest, he said.
He said he experienced physical withdrawal symptoms, such as vomiting and nausea, when he stopped smoking the drug and spent two weeks at the Ralph Perdue Center in October for his addiction.
He’s now doing much better, he said. Except for one relapse, he’s been sober since he left Ralph Perdue, he said. Along with his wife, he has become a vocal opponent of the quasi-legal status of spice.
State lawmakers have been trying to make drugs sold as potpourri and bath salts illegal during the past two legislative sessions but often have been stymied by chemists who quickly react to legislation by inventing chemically different products that produce similar results as banned substances.
Sen. Kevin Meyer, a Republican from Anchorage, was one of the sponsors of a law last spring that banned a number of cathinones, the chemical name for bath salts.
While writing the bill, he said there was discussion of writing a broader bill that criminalized drugs that are similar to existing illegal drugs. But such a broad regulation could have un-intended consequence.
“A blanket law outlawing a whole group of substances could inadvertently outlaw chemicals and substances that are used legally and regularly,” he stated in an email last week. “Long story short, we can’t ban or regulate everything — but if government has to get involved, it should be specific because too broad of a ban can have far-reaching unintended consequences.”
Even without an outright ban of these products, the Legislature can help tackle the public safety risk by calling attention to the dangers they present, Meyer said.
Federal laws banning specific drugs also become obsolete not long after they pass, but federal prosecutors have an aggressive anti-drug law known as the Federal Analogue Act that gives prosecutors authority to target products that are similar to illegal drugs. It’s been used to target sellers of potpourri in other states, though not in Alaska.