By Emily Le Coz, Chris Kieffer and Danza Johnson/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – A legal substance mimicking marijuana has found its way to Northeast Mississippi and into the hands of anyone who wants to pay about $10 for it.
Called by many names – Spice, Genie, K2 and Summit, among the most common – the fake weed is sold openly at tobacco shops and convenience stores labeled as herbal incense.
The Daily Journal found it in Saltillo, Tupelo and Verona. It’s also available online.
Like marijuana, users roll it in cigarette papers or put it in a pipe, then smoke it to get high. Unlike marijuana, it’s unregulated and still legal throughout most of the United States and in Mississippi.
But that could change.
Law enforcement officials in Tupelo and across the state are starting to seek bans of the synthetic weed, which they say poses the same dangers as its real counterpart.
Some say the fake pot potentially holds more risk, because it’s manufactured overseas with a variety of chemical compounds.
“It sounds more dangerous than the real thing,” said Ward 5 City Councilman Jonny Davis, who supports a local ban.
According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, the herbal weed causes a fast heart rate, confusion, nausea, anxiety and high blood pressure.
Ban before school starts
The city of Tupelo wants to ban the substance before the next school year gets into full swing. Police Chief Tony Carleton said it’s too easy for kids to get.
But while merchants report brisk sales, officials elsewhere in the community said they’ve had little contact with or knowledge of the substance.
North Mississippi Medical Center spokeswoman Deborah Pugh said the hospital emergency room hasn’t seen anyone with a problem from its use.
Nor has Spice been present in the schools, according to Lee County Schools Superintendent Mike Scott and Capt. Ikey Carmack, captain of the school resource officers for the Tupelo Police Department.
Lt. Paul Howell, assistant commander of the Northeast Mississippi Narcotics Unit, said the unit has received only one complaint about Spice, which was filed by a parent in Tupelo.
Carleton recommended adopting an ordinance similar to those passed last month in Horn Lake and Southaven. Both of those communities have made it a misdemeanor to buy, sell, use or possess the product in any amount.
Violators can face anywhere from $1,000 to $2,500 in fines and up to six months in jail.
The two Memphis suburbs were the first in Mississippi to ban Spice. Gautier and Moss Point on the Gulf Coast followed suit this month. Natchez also is considering it.
Statewide bans also have occurred in Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee. Lawmakers in Mississippi haven’t yet passed a law but are under pressure to do so soon.
In the meantime, merchants say they’ll continue to sell the fake weed while they still can.
“We’re going to sell it until they ban it,” said Wayne Piatt, who owns K’s Tobacco & Brew in Saltillo.
Piatt said he began carrying the products a few months ago after numerous requests from customers. Since then, it has been “extremely popular,” he said.
The store now carries one of the region’s largest selections of synthetic weed. It boasts an assortment of vials and packets, all of which are labeled as incense and “not for human consumption.”
Piatt acknowledges people do smoke it, and he said he cards all would-be buyers to make sure they’re at least 18 years old. He also doesn’t sell to high-school kids, regardless of age.
“We don’t sell to kids,” he said. “We also don’t sell paraphernalia” like pipes or bongs.
Getting a buzz
According to people who have smoked Spice, it produces a short, but intense, high. Others have compared it to a marijuana-like buzz, but not as pleasant.
JaMichael Harris, who said he smoked marijuana for years, said he frequently uses Spice. It doesn’t give the same high as marijuana, he said, but it gives the smoker a high nonetheless.
“It’s not a long-lasting high like one you get from weed, but it will get you pretty buzzed,” he said.
“I don’t think they should ban it though, because there is worse stuff out there people can be smoking.”
Harris usually buys Spice or its variations at one of the region’s top spots for the substance, Super C Tobacco and Beverage in Verona.
Clerk Summer Reese said she also has used the substance, just to see what the fuss was about.
“I tried it once, but I didn’t like it,” she said. “It tasted awful.”
Reese said the store began carrying it a few months ago, and it has quickly become a popular item. In a typical five-hour shift, she said, she’ll sell about 20-30 packets. It costs about $10 per gram.
Part of its attraction, she said, is that it’s legal and doesn’t show up on drug tests.
“I don’t think it should be banned,” Reese said. “It’s just herbs. It’s natural. Plus, if you ban it, people are just going to buy the real kind.”
Tupelo’s ban wouldn’t affect K’s or Super C’s, but many said it’s only a matter of time before other communities and the state itself crack down.
Tupelo’s ordinance would, however, affect sales at the Super Store and Deli on the corner of Lawndale Drive and Ida Street. It began carrying two types of Spice this month after customers started asking for it.
Clerk Kathy Duhr said she won’t complain about the ban. A self-described “walking, talking Christian,” Duhr said drugs of all kinds have tarnished the neighborhood and Spice is just the latest one.
But while she applauds the city’s attempt to outlaw it, Duhr said it won’t stop the problem.
“I agree with the ban in principle, but in practice it won’t work,” she said. “People are just going to find something else.”