Most of the time, police aren't surprised when they find a ballpoint pen crammed with cocaine, or illicit pills stashed in a secret compartment of a running shoe. But when a bag full of smiley-faced gumballs hollowed out and stuffed like mushrooms with marijuana were confiscated early this year at a Howard County high school and last week in Northern Virginia, it took authorities by surprise.
"This is very unique," said Edward Marcinko, special agent and public information officer for the Baltimore District Office of the Drug Enforcement Administration. "It is very alarming to see this."
The case in Howard County was so unusual that Marcinko's office sent out a nationwide alert to inform other law enforcement agencies of what may be a new, smokeless way to consume marijuana that is especially appealing to young users.
Howard County police arrested three 17-year-old students at Howard High School Jan. 11 after a teacher observed a drug transaction. Two of the students were charged with distribution of drugs on school property; a third was charged with possession of marijuana.
The gumballs, which are an inch in diameter and contained a gram of marijuana, were wrapped in tin foil and labeled as "Greenades." The label also contained instructions that read: "Take 30 mins - 1 hr before you would like receive your high" and "chew for as long as possible, then swallow."
Howard County police officers have not been able to determine where the students obtained the gumballs, according to police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn.
"They were packaged in a commercial-type wrapper," Llewellyn said. "These are not something that the kids made in their basement."
Last Saturday, the Arlington County Police Department arrested a man after they discovered 30 gumballs stuffed with brown THC, the compound that causes the intoxicating effect in marijuana, in the home of a 20-year-old Arlington man.
These smiley-face gumballs were more potent than the ones in Howard County because THC was the sole ingredient used to fill the candy, according to Arlington County Police Department spokesman Detective Steve Gomez.
"We're told that in this form it is six times more potent than if you were smoking marijuana," Gomez said.
In addition to the 30 THC gumballs, several hundred unfilled yellow gumballs were confiscated, along with materials used to insert the THC into the candy, Gomez said.
Paul C. Cofer Jr. was charged with possession with intent to distribute marijuana. He also was charged with burglary, assault and battery, and brandishing a firearm. Cofer was released on $10,000 bond on July 25. His next court appearance is Aug. 21.
Police who interviewed Cofer believe he was making the gumballs and distributing them to others. Gomez said there is no apparent link between Cofer and the Howard County arrests.
Marcinko said that DEA offices are noticing other cases involving drug-laced candy in Utah and California, where chocolate candy bars made with marijuana and LSD have been seized by law enforcement officers.
"It is a method to entice children through marketing," Marcinko explained. "Children are going to want to try those items just like a fancy shoe or baseball hat."
After working for the Drug Enforcement Administration for 20 years, Gregory D. Lee's interest was piqued by the gumball arrests.
"You're only limited by your imagination and resources available to you," said the retired Lee, who now works as a criminal justice consultant in Doral, Fla. "Putting marijuana in a gumball is unique and time consuming. But they figured it was worth the effort in concealing what they were doing."
Most users prefer to smoke marijuana than eat it because smoked marijuana affects the body at a faster rate, according to Michael Gimbel, director of substance abuse education at Sheppard Pratt Health System in Towson.
"The user may get frustrated and think that it might not take effect and they will take more," said Gimbel, who warned that the effects of eaten marijuana last longer than those of smoked marijuana.
Gimbel said he is most disturbed by the fact that the gumballs appeared to be targeted toward younger users.
"I can't say it's a surprise in the sense of drug traffickers and dealers looking for a new way to market their products," said Gimbel, who recalled the popularity of marijuana baked into brownies during the late 1960s and Ecstasy tablets made to look like candy and placed on necklaces a few years ago. "They need to find new customers, and this is a way to find new customers. This is very concerning."
If the candy catches on, it will only be a matter of time before drug distributors find other ways to conceal the drugs in other candies like Gummi bears, according to Gimbel.
"Can you imagine - if this continues - what Halloween will be like?" Gimbel asked.
Candy is not the only way drugs are being concealed.
Katie, a recent graduate of a Howard County high school in Ellicott City, said she used her bra to conceal her lithium, Xanax and Percocet while in class.
Katie, who did wish to use her name and that of her high school, said she would remove the underwire from her bra and slide pills in its place. The whole process took about five minutes.
"It is a narrow opening but it is the perfect size," she said, adding that she would pop her pills in class or in the bathroom. "If you wear a sweat shirt, no one pays that much attention."
Katie said other students would take the ink out of ballpoint pens and replace it with cocaine or ground-up pills; remove lipstick from holders and replace it with pills; and slip pills into sneakers with zippers on the side and baseball caps with secret compartments.
"It speaks to the creativity of this generation," said Katie, who was surprised to learn about gumballs.
The most memorable method was used by classmates who removed the makeup from compacts and replaced it with ground-up pills or cocaine.
"You can put a straight edge in there and you can snort it with that," said Katie, who added that her friends preferred to use their school identification cards to make powder lines to snort.
"It's a matter of opportunity, what's around," she said.
Lee, the 20-year DEA veteran, said there are numerous Web sites dedicated to "pro-drug crowds" that detail ways to conceal and consume drugs.
"The idea of the DEA monitoring these drug sites is not that practical," Lee said. "It's almost impossible to keep up with the new trends because they are so vast."