KYTX CBS 19 video
and FIELD SUTTON
A clerk approaches the counter and offers help. He says he must be careful what he says about the incense he sells.
The Texas Legislature in 2011 banned these types of products — forms of synthetic cannabis, or marijuana, and cannabinoids. However, manufacturers' chemical tweaking of aromatherapy incense, once known as K2, have made cases tough to prosecute.
East Texas police say field test kits cannot keep up with the chemical changes in what investigators call potentially dangerous drugs. Testing through the state can take months.
“We're always behind the eight ball on this stuff, and it has been that way since it has become illegal,” Palestine Police Sgt. James Muniz said.
Police officals have said the “aromatherapy incense” is synthetic cannabis, a psychoactive designer drug derived of natural herbs sprayed with synthetic chemicals that allegedly mimic the effects of cannabis when smoked.
“We are still working the case, but we had some field tests come up positive for synthetic marijuana. We are now waiting on the state test results to come back,” Muniz said.
As part of a project of The Investigators, a joint effort between the Morning Telegraph and CBS19, reporters armed with hidden cameras visited stores in Smith and Gregg counties. They wanted to determine the ease at which aromatherapy incense products could be purchased.
The packages today carry names like Titanic, Scooby Snacks, Super Sonic, Chronic, Black Mamba, The Natural, 7H, Voodoo Child, Purple Diesel, Kush, Mad Monkey, Mister Nice Guy, Hydro, Gorilla Dro, Evil Clown or 24K Monkey.
An undercover Tyler narcotics officer said users typically roll up the product like a marijuana cigarette and smoke it to get the effects.
Incense varieties typically are packaged in amounts weighed by grams and sell between $15 and $30 per gram.
Examining packages bought in Longview and Smith County, one officer noted, “Who would pay that kind of money for a gram of incense? Nobody is going to spend this much for potpourri when you can go to Walmart and buy a big bag for much cheaper, not to mention that this is sold in grams, which is how marijuana is sold. In fact, this costs more than most marijuana.”
In July, the U.S. Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 was signed into law. It banned synthetic compounds commonly found in synthetic marijuana, placing them under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.
The clerk in the Longview tattoo-tobacco shop was cautious in talking about the incense but was happy to talk about a newcomer product, Kratom, whose effect is similar to that of pain medication Hydrocodone, with an added bonus of a stimulant.
“This is legal, ingestible and, uh, I can talk about that all day. (Aromatherapy products) are sold as an incense to make your house smell good. This is a product called Kratom. It's a plant that grows in Asia, and whenever it's ingested or eaten, it provides an opiate-like effect for several hours,” the clerk said.
Several states already have banned Kratom, which has been linked to nine deaths in Sweden between 2010 and 2011.
The clerk said the potpourri was for “making your house smell good” but that he “couldn't really talk about it.”
But a Tyler undercover officer and Longview police spokeswoman Kristi Brian said most of the time it is being used for different reasons.
“It's been around for awhile, and it's really exploded in the past couple of years,” the undercover officer said. “Generally what most of the users are wanting is the similar effects of smoking marijuana. … A lot of them will give them some kind of psychotic effects also, whether hallucinating, extreme paranoia, things like that…”
In Longview, Brian said officers also are working synthetic cannabis cases, but instead of asking for voluntary compliance like in Tyler, the Longview cases typically are complaint-driven.
Many times, she said, the testing comes back negative for the banned chemical compounds.
However, delivery of a synthetic cannabinoid is a felony offense, and possession of the product is a misdemeanor.
The undercover Tyler officer said, “We are seeing several cases a month. We have had undercover officers out there that have made purchases of synthetic cannabinoids within the city, and we do have cases pending with DPS labs for results.”
But constant changes in chemical makeup frustrates police.
“It's frustrating for us from a law enforcement standpoint, because if we see a problem, we want to take care of it immediately,” the undercover officer said.
An Investigators visit to a Longview adult book store where the products are sold illustrated the point. Here, a clerk talked about staying ahead of the law.
“The distributor told me they were changing the chemical compound because there is going to be another raid or something like that. That's what I was told,” the woman said. “It specifically says not for human consumption, so if someone talks about it like that, we don't sell it to them.”
At a convenience store on Texas Highway 64 west outside the Tyler city limits, the clerk was asked if they had K2, one of the more popular brands and hence more widely known.
The clerk said K2 was not sold in the store, but when asked if he had anything like K2 he said, “Yes we have incense.”
On U.S. Highway 271 at a tobacco shop, the Investigators bought a brand of potpourri called “Titanic,” also labeled as Hypnotic.
Employees at other tobacco locations seemed leery and said they did not sell any type of incense and didn't even know where to purchase the products.
Many of the products sold in area shops have labels stating they are Drug Enforcement Agency approved and compliant with Texas legislation, but the Tyler undercover officer said the overseas manufacturers are not bound by U.S. laws and often write on the packaging “100 percent legal in all fifty states,”
When asked if the tobacco shop and convenience store owners are ignorant of the law he replied, “They know people are using this and smoking it to get high.”
The Investigators also learned from U.S. Postal Inspector Mona Hernandez that shipping or picking up packages sent through the mail containing synthetic marijuana or any illicit drug is a federal crime.
Ms. Hernandez responded to the question after the Investigators were able to go online and have the original K2 sent C.O.D. to a Tyler address from a website.
“… Our primary objectives are to rid the mail of illicit drug trafficking, preserve the integrity of the mail and, most important, provide a safe environment for postal employees and the American public. Postal Inspectors accomplish this by focusing on illicit drug mailers and distribution organizations, maintaining an aggressive drug parcel detection program and seeking prosecution of mailers and recipients of illegal drugs to the fullest extent of the law,” she said.
“This stuff is sprayed with all kinds of chemical compounds, so you don't know what all you might be inhaling and putting into your body,” he said.
MacClements said many using the potpourri actually experience a flight or fight mode.
“These individuals selling it have a vested interest in making money; they do not care about your health and safety,” he said.
The Tyler undercover police officer said patrol officers are dealing with the effects of the synthetic cannabinoids on the streets.
“Our patrol officers have gone on those calls where a person is running around in the road, acting crazy because they are smoking K2. There have been deaths associated with synthetic cannabinoids,” he said. “You've got some young, seemingly healthy people that are smoking this stuff and they die of a heart attack immediately thereafter.”
The clerk in Longview said he had taken two capsules only moments before and would feel the effects for hours.
“I just took some 20 minutes ago, and it takes about 30 to 40 minutes to hit you,” the clerk said.
However, the packaging states the product is not for human consumption.
“Right off the bat that speaks volumes to say 'take this,' because it's a capsule just like you take your vitamins,” officer Brian said.
While the clerk's explanations of the effects were not illegal, the selling of the Kratom might be.
Officer Brian said she would pass on the information to patrol officers and undercover officers.
“Obviously our public safety is first and foremost so we are going to do what we need to, to make sure this stuff is not on the streets,” she said.
MacClements said synthetic cannabis also spawns suicide attempts.
“It can produce hallucinations and psychotic behavior and even lead to one becoming suicidal,” he said. “You might be able to overcome the legal troubles if caught, but this stuff can kill you.”