It's either a harmless way to get a slight buzz or a public health menace that needs to be banned immediately.
"Spice," a plant product laced with chemicals and labeled as incense but often smoked like marijuana, has been blamed for hundreds of emergency calls to police and medical responders. Cops fingered spice after one man launched his Ford Expedition into a retaining wall in Salt Lake County. A Davis County woman claimed she spent three days in intensive care after using spice for chronic back pain.
While Utah and the federal government rush to outlaw spice, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence but little science to document what it does to humans and how harmful it might be.
The manufacture of spice, which is also known as K2, Genie, Blaze, Red X Dawn and a plethora of other names, is unregulated, meaning each brand is different. With hundreds of known active ingredients, and new ones being invented all the time, spice defies simple definition.
"All spices are not created equal," said Glen Hanson, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Utah. "There are a lot of companies that are getting in on the action. There is no quality control here, there is no common product. It represents multiple things that do multiple things."
Spice is marketed as a way to calm the body and the mind if burned as incense, Hanson said. But with contents varying wildly and including synthetic chemicals not studied in humans, consumers don't know what they are smelling or smoking.
Despite the range of chemicals used to make spice, most brands do have a few things in common. The basic recipe is herbs treated with synthetic cannabinoids, laboratory-made versions of the mind-altering chemicals in marijuana.
The synthetic versions were designed to react with the brain's cannabinoid receptors and provide relief from such symptoms as pain and nausea without the sensation of being high.
But the compounds have hardly been studied in human subjects, said John Huffman, professor of organic chemistry at Clemson University, and creator of the "JWH" series of compounds often found in spice products. Through published research by Huffman and others, enterprising chemists have been able to replicate the compounds for use in spice manufacturing.
Huffman's research, much of it funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has focused on creating new compounds that mimic the beneficial characteristics of THC, the active compound in marijuana.
Huffman stresses that while the first series of JWH compounds were developed 15 years ago, the research is still in its infancy, and many of the effects of the compounds remain unknown.
"These compounds were not meant for human consumption," Huffman said in an e-mail. "Their effects in humans have not been studied and they could very well have toxic effects. They absolutely should NOT be used as recreational drugs."
Spice manufacturers agree the incense can be harmful when smoked and note that it is labeled "not for human consumption." Synthetic cannabinoids are used in a variety of products such as high-end perfumes, and have been studied by government scientists for at least 40 years, said Daniel Francis, executive director of the Retail Compliance Association (RCA), an organization that has filed a lawsuit over a proposed ban by the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Francis argues that the herbs, such as lion's tail and Indian wildfire, are the true active compounds in spice, and have been used as ritual incense since the time of the Mayans. The cannabinoids simply enhance the scent of the incense, he said.
Francis also disputes anecdotal evidence that spice has caused health problems in people. Those who choose to smoke or consume the incense are not using the product as recommended, he said. The association supports standardized good manufacturing practices and banning the sale of spice to anyone younger than 19, but wants the industry to regulate itself.
The RCA hopes new restrictions will help preserve the spice industry, which he said raked in an estimated $1.2 billion in 2010.
"No one is really looking to sell it to kids. We would agree that's an irresponsible practice," Francis said. "We want to be open with law enforcement. We want to create a system that makes it easy to tell if the product is legal or not."
Despite efforts by the RCA in blocking the DEA's proposal, Utahns could see spice outlawed from store shelves as early as February.
The Utah Legislature's HB23 would make spice a controlled substance, and its sale, possession and distribution would be illegal. Medical researchers would still be allowed to continue work on synthetic cannabinoids, but would not be allowed to prescribe them to patients not enrolled in a research study.
"I was not willing to wait for another year, possibly two years, for [the DEA ban] to take place," said Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, sponsor of HB23. The bill has already received a favorable recommendation from the Legislature's Health and Human Services subcommittee, and could see floor debate this week.
HB200, sponsored by Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, would ban the sale of synthetic cannabinoids to people younger than 19.
Some cities and counties along the Wasatch Front have already outlawed the sale, manufacture and possession of spice.
But 77 percent of Utahns favor a statewide ban, according to a recent Salt Lake Tribune poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research. The poll has a 4 percent margin of error.
"It's detrimental to people and society, just like other drugs," said poll respondent DeRae Fillmore, of Fremont.
Fillmore, a Wayne County commissioner, hopes the Legislature bans spice, but said her county is considering its own ordinance in case the statewide ban doesn't happen. Spice hasn't been seen in Wayne County yet, Fillmore said, but "if it's in Salt Lake, it will be here soon."
But Ramona Lopez, of Midvale, thinks spice should be available to those who want it. Lopez has never used spice, but believes it is not as bad as marijuana. The government already tries to control too many aspects of life, she said.
Others, such as nurse Vicki McCormack, of Lindon, see spice as a "gateway" drug that can lead to future problems.
"They begin with marijuana or spice, then they graduate [to other drugs] and I see them in the ER," said McCormack, who works at Utah Valley Regional Hospital.
The U.'s Hanson agrees.
"Let's get this poison off of the shelves. It shouldn't be there," Hanson said. "It's foolish to use this stuff. You don't know what you're getting."
How do Utahns feel about spice?
According to a poll by The Salt Lake Tribune, 77 percent of those polled support a statewide ban on spice. See how the numbers break down. âº A6