Harford County Sheriff's detectives recently uncovered what they believe is an enterprise to make the synthetic street drug, commonly known as "spice," in Forest Hill.
While investigating a possible illegal handgun transaction earlier this month, detectives found a "full scale commercial spice manufacturing and distribution operation," Cristie Kahler, a Sheriff's Office spokesperson, said Thursday.
Investigators have sent the materials seized to the federal DEA to determine if what was being made was a legal or illegal substance, Kahler said.
A box truck was required to remove all the products and ingredients from the property, according to one of the detectives, who said the "spice" had an estimated retail value of roughly $2 million, Kahler said.
Spice is a legal substance, often sold as incense, that carries the label "not fit for human consumption," she said. When the product is smoked, regardless what chemicals it was made with, it potentially produces a dangerous high. Law enforcement and public health officials have been concerned about spice's growing use and its slippery legal status.
Spice is made with vegetation, so it has organic components, but it is treated with chemicals, such as acetone or grain alcohol, that produce a high when smoked. It burns hotter than tobacco and when inhaled can attack the lungs and cause serious brain damage, Kahler said.
Spice is widely available over the counter at gas station and other convenience stores for $25 to $40 a gram or bag.
Detectives found the spice-making operation in the 1600 block of Morse Road on Aug. 9, according to Kahler, who said the detectives also saw a jar of suspected marijuana, which led them to request a search for the entire property, which includes several outbuildings.
As they began to search one of the buildings, "the smell of some sort of chemical became overwhelming," Kahler said.
Unsure of what the chemical was, deputies called the Harford County Hazmat team to clear the building for them and ensure it was safe to enter.
They found the spice-making operation when they finally went inside, Kahler said.
"They had everything on the premises from the vegetation to chemicals that are added to the vegetation to the packaging; everything was there," she said.
The person who made the spice is facing two misdemeanor handgun charges and one misdemeanor marijuana charge, but could be facing more serious charges, if the spice is found to have been made with illegal substances, Kahler said, adding that detectives will wait to file any charges until information comes back from the DEA.
His name has not been released because he has not been charged. Kahler said he is 27 years old and is not in police custody. He was living on the property, but does not own it, and has ties to two or three others states, she said.
The property owner also lives out of state and will be questioned once the legality of the spice has been determined, Kahler said.
"One of the problems with spice, in general, is there are certain chemicals that make it illegal and as fast as legislation can be changed to keep it illegal, producers can change one molecule to change the recipe and the chemical becomes legal again," she said.
The issue of legality creates difficulty in banning the product, she added.
"It's so new. Everyone is constantly playing catch-up on how to handle it, how to identify it and obviously what's legal and not legal," Kahler said, and detectives may have found a full-scale operation that is legal.