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."
The danger with spice, or any other synthetic drug, he said, is the manufacturers are not licensed chemists.
"They're just coming up with different compounds they get from other dealers" or other places, he said.
The raw materials are dried out on trays, then sprayed with the various compounds, often with a spray bottle. The problem with that, Dunbar said, is that the material in one corner of the tray could have three times as much of the chemical on it as the material in the other three corners, which could cause a significantly stronger reaction than the less-treated materials.
July raids in Edgewood
Local police are treating synthetic drugs, included synthetic marijuana, just like any other illegal drug that's out there, Dunbar said.
Specifically, he referred to the July seizures of retail spice products — including smoking materials and drug paraphernalia, such as electronic scales and packaging material — during raids at the Mystic Mart and Royal Lands, two convenience stores across the street from each other on Hanson Road in Edgewood.
Between the two stores, police seized more than 40 packages of synthetic marijuana totaling nearly 170 grams. The packages tested at the scene were positive for illegal compounds and were then sent for further testing, according to Dunbar, who said they are still waiting on official lab results before making decisions about filing charges.
In the meantime, police have received information about several other retailers distributing synthetic drugs in the county.
"We are actively working those investigations, and we will treat them the same as we did Mystic Mart and Royal Lands," Dunbar said. "We'd like to get the message out there to gas stations, convenience stores, to stop. And if they don't, we will eventually be paying them a visit."
'Still pretty brazen'
The gas station and convenience store owners are playing a type of Russian roulette when it comes to selling the synthetic drugs, according to Dunbar, taking a chance the products contain analogs that haven't been banned yet.
"They're hoping what they're selling is legal, but they don't know for sure," Dunbar said. "It's still pretty brazen."
Synthetic drugs, he noted, are easier to get than cigarettes since they don't require proof of age.
Police are trying to make it less attractive to sell spice by hitting the businesses owners who do where it hurts, in their wallets, Dunbar said.
"Our objective is to eradicate it so they don't sell it at all or so the consequences of selling it are much higher than financial gain," he said.