Saturday, November 12, 2011
By David Lombardo
Daily Gazette

CAPITAL REGION — Parents now need to worry about drugs that aren’t technically drugs.

A legal herbal incense that mimics the effects of marijuana when it’s smoked is becoming a growing problem around the country and may be catching on in Saratoga County. Several students reportedly were hospitalized after smoking the incense, local authorities said.

Packaged similarly to a small bag of candy with brand names like K2, Posh and Supernova, the herbal incense can be sold to anyone and in some instances can be purchased for as little as $6.65 per gram. It’s available in several stores in the area.

It’s also much more potent than the average marijuana, but it is consumed in similar ways, according to Patty Kilgore, director of counseling for the Prevention Council.

The side effects of smoking the incense include hallucinations, mental health issues, anxiety, vomiting, heart failure and even death, she said.

“It has been a little bit in the background for a while,” said Kilgore. “With the start of the school year, it seems to have exploded.”

Kilgore said the product is legal because it is not marketed as something that people should smoke. In fact, she said the labels on these products often tell people it’s not for human consumption and is only to be burned as incense. However, K2’s website includes the phrase “legal smoke.”

The drug effect appeals to younger people, said Kilgore. She said young people can easily conceal their use of the substance from parents, as the packaging “almost looks like Pop Rocks,” a candy. “If a parent saw a package, they would think it is some kind of candy,” she said.

Kilgore said it is hard to outlaw the incense, which has been attempted on the federal level, because chemists are able to modify the ingredients enough so that they are exempt from whatever bans are put in place.

With a somewhat similar problem, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency issued a temporary ban on the chemicals in bath salts because people were using them to re-create the highs of cocaine and LSD.

The state Legislature banned caffeinated alcoholic beverages this past legislative session.

Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III noted that the DEA instituted a one-year ban on the chemical compounds in the incense in March so it could study its effect on health. He said it hasn’t been a meaningful ban because the formulas were just altered a little bit to avoid the ban.

Murphy said a state law would be more desirable than individual counties in New York trying to outlaw the substance.

Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Glenville, said these types of products should not be legal in the state, and he described them as “the ultimate gateway drug.” He said he will begin looking into legislation that would lead to an outright ban of the incense in the state.

“A lot of things are placed on the counter in the guise of incense,” Tedisco said.

As to whether New York businesses would take it on themselves to remove the items from their stores, he said, “You would hope people would do this, but people don’t always follow their moral responsibility. Sometimes you need laws.”

One business that took it upon itself to stop selling the incense was Smoke & Fire, a tobacco accessories shop on Caroline Street in Saratoga Springs. Store owner Theresa Sheffer said her store sold the item for three to six months, but they stopped selling it a year ago.

“Mainly because it wasn’t a good product. To be honest, it scared us a little bit,” she said. “We made a lot of money, but we chose to make a stand and choose morals over profits.”

When the store did sell it, Sheffer said, “It was ridiculous. So many people would buy it.” The store continues to get calls about the incense.

Sheffer said it was a mixed group of consumers who were interested in the product, but it was mostly people under the age of 35. The store only sold it to people older than 18.

“As a businessperson, you don’t think your morals are ever going to pay off for you,” Sheffer said about the attention her store has recently received. “We meet the stereotype of the kind of business that would sell it, but we’re not.”

The incense can still be purchased throughout the county, including at the Smoke n’ Save at Congress Plaza in Saratoga Springs and at some USA gas stations.

Additionally, many of the herbal incense brands can still be purchased on the Internet.