SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Some Oregon teens are using an herbal incense with synthetic forms of the active ingredient in marijuana to get high.
Herbal incense also known by brand names Spice, K2 or Buzz is legal and sold in area smoke shops. But parents of teens who have smoked herbal incense and suffered adverse effects are calling for it to be banned.
Herbal incense isn't regulated by law, so police have no grounds for enforcement when they find a person using it, police said.
"There's absolutely nothing that we can do about it," Salem Police Sgt. Dennis Engel said. "That's the hard part."
Police in Salem and Marion County have rarely encountered the incense being smoked, though they expect that they might see it more frequently.
Engel, who leads Salem police's street crimes drug investigation unit, said he recently heard about herbal incense. Since then, he's been doing research on the substance.
In early August, Salem Officer Cheyne Galusha was called to a home after a mother found herbal incense in her teen son's pocket. The teen had purchased the incense from a friend who packaged it, Galusha said.
Aside from informing the parents of their children's actions and the dangers, Galusha couldn't do anything else, he said.
"It's concerning because it is unregulated and it has the potential to impair," Galusha said.
Herbal incense's active ingredients are synthetic cannabinoids, chemicals that imitate the effect of the THC found in marijuana, according to Oregon Partnership, a nonprofit that seeks to end substance abuse and suicide.
The compound in herbal incense, JWH-018, is about four times more powerful than the THC in marijuana, according to the group, which is calling for Oregon to ban the substance as Kansas did earlier this year.
"It's time we ban K2 by any of its names," said Oregon Partnership CEO Judy Cushing. "It's a threat to public health and safety."
Police suspect that minors more than adults are drawn to the incense because of accessibility and cost. There's no law regulating the sale of herbal incense to minors, police said.
Herbal incense sells for about $160 per ounce, Engel said. That's about half the price of marijuana, which can sell for $250 to $300 per ounce, he said.
In a group of about 15 teens gathered downtown last week, more than half said they'd smoked the incense. The teens ranged in age from 12 to 18 at the time they first smoked it, they said.
The group described the high as more hallucinogenic than marijuana. Most of the teens said they preferred the "laid-back, relaxed" high of marijuana to the "dizzy" and "warped" high from smoking incense.
At Smokey's Novelties in Liberty Plaza downtown, prices for herbal incense range from $5 to $60 depending on amount and quality, said owner Edward Lara. Lara said he's sold herbal incense since he opened the shop in 2002.
"I've had steady business for this stuff," Lara said. "It's just starting to go more mainstream."
Each package warns "not for human consumption," but Lara is concerned that people are using it for other purposes.
"When stuff starts to gain in popularity, they start to abuse it," Lara said. "People make bad choices. ... You're not supposed to smoke it. (That's) not its intent."
Lara said he sells the incense only to adults who show their identification and that he has kicked people out of his shop for insinuating they'll smoke the incense, Lara said.
"People need to use it for its purposes; it is not for smoking," Lara said. "We have tons of things you can smoke. This is for burning."
One Salem teen ended up in the hospital after trying herbal incense last week. His mother, Sherry, said her son woke her up at about 1:40 a.m. after smoking herbal incense.
Sherry declined to use her last name out of concerns of repercussions to her son.
After smoking herbal incense, her son appeared to be having a panic attack, Sherry said.
"You could see his heart just pounding in his chest," she said. The family went to the emergency room.
Her son was released after a four-hour stay during which he repeatedly stopped breathing, Sherry said.
"It was the worst situation as a parent I could ever imagine being in," Sherry said. Her son, who had mentioned the substance before, had given money to a homeless man to buy him some, she said.
"He had mentioned two to three weeks ago something about this legal pot," Sherry said. "I'm arguing with him that there's no such thing as legal pot."
Sherry is joining Oregon Partnership in calling for the substance to be banned.
"I'm most angry because it is so easy for kids to get," Sherry said.
"Not only is it out there, it's real. It is as dangerous as you read it is, and it needs to be banned."
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)