This Feb. 15, 2010, photo shows a package of K2 which contains herbs and spices sprayed with a synthetic compound chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. State lawmakers in Missouri and Kansas have introduced bills which would create penalties for K2 possession similar to those for marijuana.(AP Photo/Kelley McCall)

Kelley McCall

Arizona law bans marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

But it doesn't ban "K2" or "spice" or "snowball."

In fact, if it's not listed as an illegal, controlled substance, retail stores can sell it and young people can buy it, smoke it or drink it as a tea even if the package is marked, "not for consumption."

Synthetic designer drugs are creating a new market - and a new concern.

Coalitions of educators, law enforcement groups, health officials and lawmakers around the state are looking at the issue and at how to get the synthetics banned in the state.

"We're seeing synthetic cocaine, synthetic heroin, synthetic everything," said state Rep. Matt Heinz, D-Tucson. "If you just tweak the stuff slightly, none of our laws apply anymore."

An East Valley coalition is meeting Wednesday to discuss the problem of a synthetic marijuana known as "k2" or "spice" that's made its way into area schools.

The districts are altering their drug policies to include language banning "imitations of illegal drugs." The Chandler Unified School District governing board is voting on the change Wednesday. Tempe Union High School District and Gilbert Unified School District made the changes earlier this year. Mesa Unified School District already has language that addresses the imitations.

Just last month, the Drug Enforcement Administration issued an emergency ban on the five chemicals that make up "spice," a mixture of herbs and spices.

The ban goes into effect Dec. 24, making it illegal to possess or sell products that contain them for 12 months while they're researched.

But more synthetics are coming, and that's what needs to be addressed.

"Technically cops can't do anything. If we make spice, K2, snowball (a synthetic cocaine) illegal, then K3 comes out and the smoke shops start stocking K3," Heinz said.

An admitting physician at Tucson Medical Center, Heinz said he's seen firsthand the effect of some of these synthetics, including seizures, temporary paralysis of limbs and the inability to speak.

Joranda Montano, director of prevention with Community Bridges, a Mesa-based substance abuse treatment and prevention agency, is on the East Valley Spice Task Force. Her group - Community Bridges - also conducts prevention and diversion programs for East Valley school districts.

"We are seeing quite a few students getting busted for spice. Because it looks like flu-like symptoms and is not as easily detected with the smell like marijuana, kids could be flying under the radar and I suspect that's happening," Montano said.

The task force came together quickly - just last month - once it became apparent spice was here.

Consumed by smoking or chewing, these synthetic designer drugs can create the similar psychological effects to controlled substances.

"We don't know how long it's going to be an issue. When it isn't going to be spice, it's going to be something else. We know it's happening with other drugs as well. This is, I'm afraid, going to be part of our new reality and it's really frightening," said Bobbie Cassano, who leads Tempe's coalition to reduce underage drinking and drug use and is a member of the East Valley Spice Task Force. "From our point of view, I don't think anyone has been prepared in Arizona until the last two months. It hit very suddenly. The kids were (aware of spice) but none of the parents. It's come very quietly and then all the sudden here we are, partly because it's legal up until now and partly because it's a way kids can try getting a high similar to marijuana and not be doing anything ‘bad.'"

Heinz said he and other lawmakers, including Rep. Amanda Reeve, R-Phoenix, are on another coalition that will meet again in January to work on legislation.

He hopes to craft two bills: one that immediately addresses the issue of synthetics that are known about, such as spice, and one that addresses the overall issue of synthetics any time they are altered.

"This is uncharted territory. We're going to be one of the first states to do what I'm going to call a comprehensive designer drug prohibition ...," Heinz said. "If it's a slight modification of a naturally occurring, controlled substance, we need to treat it as a controlled substance."

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