YORK — Teachers noticed the 16-year-old York High School student stumbling around and acting strangely almost as soon as he arrived at school one morning a few weeks ago.
Noting the teen's slurred, incoherent speech, a teacher called for an administrator. The student — who was also hallucinating — ended up going to the emergency room and was treated for an erratic heartbeat, high blood pressure and other issues.
After an investigation, York administrators determined that before school that morning, the boy had smoked "spice" — a synthetic chemical that mimics marijuana — with two friends. And he apparently had a strong allergic reaction.
It was an eye-opening experience for lots of teachers, administrators and parents into a new drug increasingly being used by young people.
"It was the first I had heard of it," said Pat Smith, a mother of a York Middle School student and a member of the Parent-Teacher Association. "According to what my son was saying, pretty much all the kids know about it, and a lot of kids are using it. It's kind of the standard thing."
The name "spice" sounds innocuous and natural enough. It's officially said to be "incense," with the packaging quick to tell users the product is "not designed for human consumption."
But in fact, spice is not natural at all. It's a man-made chemical designed not for incense, but to get people high, critics say. Some convenience stores that sell it, retailers say, buy it from dealers hawking it out of their cars.
Mark Medford — the chairman of the York County School Board, a master sheriff's deputy who serves as one of several drug education officers in the county, and a father of two students — said the incident with the teen has raised awareness.
"It brought a lot of attention to the problem," Medford said. "The radars are going up, the flags are being waved, and people are now paying attention. We're taking it very seriously … Parents really need to be on top of this kind of thing."
A few days later, Medford went to Richmond to attend a governor's event for school board chairmen and superintendents across the state.
While there, he met Maureen McDonnell, the wife of Gov. Bob McDonnell, and began telling her about the spice problem. "I got the opportunity to say 'Hi," and said, 'Let me mention something to you,'" Medford said. "It sparked an interest with her. Then she goes to get her husband, the governor, and he comes walking over."
Gov. McDonnell gave Medford a business card and asked him to get in touch so Medford could get with Virginia Public Safety Secretary Marla Graff Decker about the issue. McDonnell's press secretary, Tucker Martin, said Thursday that Decker is actively talking with the Virginia State Police and others about how to best handle concerns about spice.
Spice was designed by Clemson University graduate students in a class project to design a chemical that mimics marijuana. Now, the chemical, known as "JWH-018," is often cheaper, it's legal to buy in most states — for now, at least — and is not detectable in many drug tests.
It's glazed onto materials, such as dried leaves — but is also sometimes put on such things as hay and saw dust — then smoked. The drug has grown by word of mouth, mostly from people seeing it smoked at parties.
But there have been growing reports about side effects and allergic reactions, with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration considering spice "a drug of concern," and saying the agency is in the "early stages" of trying to determine its potency.
Laws have begun to pop up around the country attempting to ban it. There's no law on the books banning the substance in Virginia, though Medford says he has "no doubt" that the General Assembly will act to outlaw it in the upcoming legislative term.
In the meantime, there's been little law enforcement action on spice. The York Sheriff's Office and the Hampton police, for example, both told the Daily Press they don't plan to take any enforcement actions on the drug unless and until the drug is banned.
But some police departments are looking at ways to crack down. Harold Eley, a Newport News police spokesman, said police are conferring with the Newport News Commonwealth's Attorney's Office about "some possible charges we might be able to use."
He said they're honing in on an existing state statute that makes it illegal, without a medical reason, to "deliberately smell or inhale any drugs or any other noxious chemical substances … with the intent to become intoxicated, inebriated, excited, stupefied or to dull the brain or nervous system."
It's also illegal, that law states, to "cause, invite or induce" anyone to use such drugs. The law lists a host of chemicals it bars. The list doesn't include spice, though the law notes it's "not limited" to the products listed. Violating the statute is a Class 2 misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
But even without a spice ban or law enforcement action, some people are taking it upon themselves to spread the word on what they say are the drug's apparent dangers.
In Hampton, Mone Gilliam, a mother of five children in the Hampton schools division and vice president of the Parent-Teacher Association at Phoebus High School, learned about spice from recent media reports. She was floored.
"I try to stay on everything, and I did some research and was very upset," Gilliam said. "Already we have issues with kids leaving school, smoking marijuana. Now there's something on the market that they can just go to the store and buy with no problem."
She said her children — ages 17, 16, 13, 12 and 9 — said they hadn't heard about spice when she asked them about it. Neither did several parents she spoke with. But she's trying to change that, telling as many parents as she can about the newfangled drug.
"I like to stay ahead of the game," Gilliam said. "I'm about prevention … And there's no way parents should not know about this stuff."
She vowed that if lawmakers don't ban the substance in law, she will take action. "If they don't (ban it), we'll be fighting, petitioning, boycotting the stores selling it," she said.
In York, Carl James, the chief operating officer of the school division, said the school system is cooperating with the PTA as it puts together two education sessions for parents to "make them aware of the alarming situation and to make sure they know the dangers."
One of those sessions will be held be at 7 p.m. on Oct. 28 at York High School, and the other will be at 7 p.m. on Nov. 4 at Bruton High School.
"I asked 10 parents if they had heard about it, and not one parent had," said York County PTA president Laurel Garrelts. "Then I asked six students in my travels, and they said it was like nothing, that you get it at the gas station. Their rationale is that it's not illegal," so what's the big deal?