Harford synthetic marijuana busts

The Harford County Sheriff's Office says allegedly illegal Spice, or synthetic marijunana, drug paraphernalia and cash were seized in raids at two convenience stores in a high crime area of Edgewood last month. (Photo courtesy of Harford County, Baltimore Sun Media Group / July 8, 2014)

Synthetic marijuana, also known as "spice," can be easier to get than cigarettes in Harford County, and while police last year broke up what they say was a significant distribution ring, the intoxicant remains a problem locally and is being treated by local law enforcement the same as other illicit drugs.

"It's still out there. We've seen a lot of people's lives affected by it," Capt. Lee Dunbar of the Harford County Sheriff's office said in a recent interview. Dunbar also is head of the Harford County Task Force.

Last August, the Harford Task Force raided a property near Forest Hill, where suspected synthetic marijuana was being produced in large quantities.

No charges were ever filed in connection with the raid, however, though police say the operation was effectively put out of business.

Some forms of spice are legal in Maryland, others are not, and therein lies a problem confronting police and public health officials.

Often sold as incense that carries the label "not fit for human consumption," the product is smoked by its users. Regardless of what chemicals are used in its manufacture, spice produces a potentially dangerous high, according to police and health officials.

Slippery legal status

Even before last summer's raid, law enforcement and public health officials in Harford had expressed concerns about spice's growing use and its slippery legal status.

Spice is made with vegetation, so it has organic components, but those are in turn 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, according to health officials.

The problem with synthetic marijuana, Dunbar said, is the ever-changing list of components used to make it. Depending on which components are used in its manufacture, a particular batch may or may not be legal.

"What we need is our lawmakers to come down with a much broader law, in which any and all chemical analogs are illegal," Dunbar said. "We want it to be treated like marijuana, heroin, cocaine."

Chemical analogs are compounds whose molecular structures are similar, but vary slightly from each other. Often they have related or similar properties.

A prime example of the changing nature of the chemical compounds is the spice seizures in Forest Hill on Aug. 9, 2013.

The products police confiscated from an outbuilding on a property in the 1600 block of Morse Road were made with chemical compounds that were legal when they were seized, but had become illegal by the time the products were tested by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the Maryland State Police, according to Dunbar.

"Which means, for us, it's tough, because we weren't able to charge him," Dunbar said of the man who was living on the property but was not the owner.

Dunbar said police of lost track of the manufacturer's whereabouts. Because he was never charged in connection with the confiscated materials, The Aegis is not naming him.

$2 million in product

Even though the 2013 raid did not result in any criminal charges, Dunbar said police still consider the case a success "because we shut down a multi-state distribution ring" that he says stretched as far south as Florida.

Police seized thousands and thousands of various bags of synthetic marijuana and all the equipment and materials used to make the product. Police estimated at the time the haul had a street value of about $2 million. All the materials have been destroyed, Dunbar said.

"He had all the packaging material, he had a lot of final product ready for sale, he had the machines to pack it, stamp it, crimp it. He had dryers, sifters," Dunbar explained. "He was producing thousands upon thousands of various kinds of synthetic drugs, synthetic marijuana, which is extremely dangerous."