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Is it spice, or is it legal? Smoke shops could get busted

Published October 15, 2011 8:02 am

Public safety • Law-enforcement agencies split on whether the substance is illegal.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Layton • Spice by any other name might smell as sweet. And get you high, too.

But a new variation of the synthetic marijuana-like drug that was banned earlier this year by the Utah Legislature also is illegal, according to some law enforcement officials. It goes by the street name potpourri and sells for as little as $5 a gram.

But many area smoke-shop owners believe potpourri, sold under several brand names, is legal. And some in law enforcement also say it might be legal.

"There is too much confusion," said the proprietor of Cloud 9 in Layton, who would identify himself only as A.R. "People don't know what's going on. It's hard to get an accurate picture."

A.R. and other smoke shop managers say vendors showed them the chemical analysis of potpourri, which differs from that outlined in Utah law banning spice.

But Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clinton, a proponent of the new law, says it bans all synthetic analogs — slight variations — of the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana and spice. Those analogs were contemplated when the law was written, Ray said.

"What they're selling as potpourri is an analog of spice," Ray said. "And it's not legal."

Law enforcement will go after both the manufacturers of potpourri and the retailers, he said.

Possession of synthetic THC is a class B misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail. Selling or distributing THC or one of its analogs is a third-degree felony, punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and up to five years in jail.

Among the problems with spice and potpourri, said Steve Garside, Layton deputy city attorney, is that when manufacturers apply the synthetic THC to otherwise non-psychoactive herbs, they use solvents that can be toxic when smoked.

"We have no idea what the toxicity of some these products is," he said. "The impact is more harmful than marijuana."

Layton will prosecute retailers who sell potpourri, Garside said.

But such prosecutions require that substances be tested to confirm they contain THC or one of its analogs. Such investigations take time, Garside said. To date, no charges have been filed in Layton for possession or sale of potpourri.

After spice was outlawed, Cloud 9 stopped selling it, A.R. said. In fact, a sign on the counter at the Antelope Drive shop tells customers: "Please, don't ask for spice. We don't have any."

When potpourri showed up recently, A.R. said he wouldn't carry it. But he had to relent to meet the competition. "We started selling it a week ago, because everybody else was selling it. Even gas stations are selling it."

One 21-year-old Layton man, who refused to be identified, said he believes potpourri is legal because its chemical composition is different than spice.

"It's like weed. It's a lot shorter acting, but it's good," he said outside the Smoke Plus Hookah shop in Layton. He had just purchased a gram of potpourri, called Scar Face, for $5.

He said law enforcement will not be able to crack down on synthetic THC. "There are so many synthetics out there, the cops can't keep up with it. But this would all go away if they'd legalize marijuana."

At Smoke & More in nearby Clearfield, Kipika Patel says potpourri is popular with her customers. And, she added, vendors come by regularly to ply their brands with lab results showing it isn't spice.

However, Smoke & More is not selling potpourri, Patel explained. When Clearfield police were investigating a burglary at the shop recently, they took the potpourri to test it.

"We are waiting for the lab report," she said. "According to the vendors, it's legal. But we are waiting for the police to tell us if it's potpourri or spice."

The retail sale of potpourri appears to be widespread, according to law enforcement officials. Among other places, it is sold at Smoke Break Hookah Outlet in Salt Lake City. The manager of the shop, who wouldn't give his name, said it is legal, and he has the lab tests to prove it.

A spokesman for the Salt Lake City Police Department said the state Legislature would have to change the law before the department would seek out potpourri sellers.

"We can only enforce what is in the law," said Officer Josh Ashown. "If it's not in the language, then we can't go after it."

But the Salt Lake County Unified Police Department will go after potpourri sellers, said Sgt. Scott Van Wagoner.

"Virtually everything coming out of these shops is an analog of spice," he said. "And the law says analogs are illegal, too."





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