Emergency room nurse Lanay Washington and her colleagues in the University of Colorado Hospital ER have treated their share of patients suffering the ill effects of synthetic cannabinoids. (Kathryn Scott Osler, Denver Post file)

Editorial: A need to crack down on “spice” in Colorado

By Alicia Caldwell, The Denver Post

Whatever you do, don’t call it “synthetic marijuana.”

The problems bred by that misleading label are at the heart of why some Colorado policymakers are preparing to push for a renewed crackdown on the proliferation of this drug, sold in convenience stores for $5 or $10 a packet.

Despite the deceptive name that makes it sound similar to weed, “synthetic cannabinoids” are far more dangerous. They have been linked to the deaths of some users and have sent others to the hospital with hallucinations and extreme paranoia.

The problem got so bad that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dispatched a team to Colorado this fall, which investigated 221 emergency room visits caused by use of “spice,” another name for the stuff.

It’s serious business, and there are some legislative and policy changes in the works that could improve the situation.

Now, some contend Colorado’s 2011 law outlawing spice has loopholes that prevent enforcement. That’s not exactly right.

The real trouble is the ever-evolving recipe for spice, which complicates testing.

“That’s hard for us to keep up with,” said Shawn West, director of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) lab in Pueblo.

On a related note, the lack of a reliable instant test that can be used by police to see if material at hand truly is spice also causes problems.

While CBI can expedite testing, said Tom Raynes, executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, that still leaves police on the scene unsure of whether they’re seizing illegal material or busting someone for incense.

“They’re kind of sticking their necks out,” Raynes said.

In the hopes of remedying that, lawmakers will push for pilot program money for cutting-edge portable testing devices so cops can quickly figure out what they’re dealing with.

Lawmakers will ask for increased civil penalties of up to $500,000 for those that sell it, typically convenience stores and head shops.

And they’re hoping to craft a public education message about how dangerous spice can be.

“It’s like taking oregano and spraying it with Raid, antifreeze, and other dangerous stuff and putting it in your body,” said state Rep. Lois Landgraf, R-Fountain. She is preparing to intoduce the spice enforcement bill on Wednesday.

At first blush, it might seem ironic that even though recreational marijuana is legal in Colorado, there is a surge in the use of something called a synthetic alternative. Why not just go for the real thing?

While it’s true that recreational pot is legal in Colorado, some employers and the military still prohibit its use.

So, if you want to get high and pass a drug screen, the thought goes, light up some spice, which is sold under the names of Black Mamba, Sexy Monkey, Dead Man Walking and Twilight.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Colorado Springs, with its big military presence, is one of the areas that has seen an uptick in spice hospitalizations.

Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, said she has asked the governor’s office to include information about the dangers of spice in marijuana education materials.

And she is hoping the state Department of Revenue will include spice in the screening and enforcement work it conducts at convenience stores.

The message needs to get out, Aguilar said, that synthetic cannabinoids can be almost anything sprayed onto greenery from a spice rack.

And almost certainly, it’s nothing good.

E-mail Alicia Caldwell at acaldwell@ denverpost.com. Follow her on Twitter: @AliciaMCaldwell