Sitting behind a glass case on the counter of Less Smoke Shop on Eureka Way in Redding is a marijuana alternative that is potent, won’t show up on drug tests and is perfectly legal.
It’s called Black Mamba.
Sold in round, quarter-ounce, clear plastic containers, the substance looks similar to the dried herbs Aunt Molly would stir into her spaghetti sauce. But officials say the herbal blend has the power to increase blood pressure, cause paranoia, agitation, hallucinations and get users very, very high.
In the Midwest, where the substance is almost as popular as the real deal, according to news reports, people have started showing up in emergency rooms with stomach pain, severe agitation requiring sedation, intense hallucinations and in some cases seizures after smoking it.
Black Mamba is made of dried damiana plants sprayed with a synthetic cannabinoid known as JWH-018 and sold as herbal incense labeled “not for human consumption.”
The ingredient was created in a chemistry lab in the ’90s by John W. Huffman and mimics the effects of THC on the brain, Shasta County Public Health Officer Andrew Deckert said in an e-mail.
Deckert said none of the researchers intended for the compound, which is four times more potent than THC, to be ingested or smoked and it has never been tested on people. Despite that, two health risks are evident.
“Obviously, anything smoked is bad for your lungs and most psychoactive substances are not good for driving,” he said.
Deckert said the materials are labeled not for human consumption to get around the Federal Analogue Act, which banned compounds chemically similar to controlled substances that are intended for human consumption.
The U.S. Department of Justice listed the compound as a “chemical of interest” in July 2009 but noted it is not a controlled substance in the U.S.
Since 2008 nine European countries have banned JWH-018.
Kansas banned it in March and state legislatures in Missouri, Illinois, Utah, Kentucky, Georgia, North Dakota and Tennessee are moving in that direction. The California State Assembly and Senate haven’t seen any such legislation, said Bill Bird, spokesman for Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley.
“There’s nothing that we have on the books in terms of legislation that we’ve been able to find on this,” he said. “Nobody has brought this to Sen. Aanestad’s attention.”
While he can’t say if other state senators are familiar with the legal weed, he said the Record Searchlight’s inquiry was the first they’d heard of it.
Even those who sell Black Mamba spice in the north state don’t have a good understanding of the herbal blend.
Bawa Amarjit, who owns Less Smoke Shop, said he started selling Black Mamba in March but doesn’t know much about it.
“I heard it was the new stuff,” he said, suggesting it’d be popular and fresh.
The 1 gram units sell for close to $17 each including tax at the shop.
While Black Mamba is labeled “100% High Quality Damiana,” Deckert said tests have shown that sometimes even the herbs themselves are unknown.
“Labs have tested these synthetic marijuana incenses and found the plants they said were in there weren’t in there,” he said. “We don’t even know what plants they’re putting in there.”
In Red Bluff, Subculture Manager Miranda Rominski said 10 to 20 companies have called her over the past few months trying to sell their own spice blend product but it’s the customers who convinced her to consider ordering her first shipment.
“If someone hears about it they’ll want to try it out of natural curiosity,” she said.
Rominiski said some customers have told her they like it while others thought it was terrible.
“Word gets around quick if one person likes it or one person thinks it’s crazy,” she said.
Rominiski said she’s still debating it.
One of the most attractive traits of the drug, aside from its high potency, is the fact it won’t show up on drug tests — making it appealing to teens and parolees.
Ryan Johnson, assistant principal at Foothill High School, said he first heard about the spice mixture from another Shasta County educator and researched it on his own.
“No problems as of yet, fingers crossed, but it’s just a matter of time before it crops up,” he said.
Shasta High School Principal Milan Woollard said his high school hasn’t seen it yet either, but faculty members are preparing themselves nevertheless.
Woollard said if the spice blend is encountered on campus it will be met with the same disciplinary process as any illegal drug.
“It’s the same as anything else whether it’s a drug or a look-alike drug,” he said.
Local law enforcement officers are also on the lookout.
Redding Police Chief Peter Hansen said he first talked about the substance with drug agents a few months ago. So far the police haven’t received any complaints, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a concern, he said.
“If it is mind-altering then, yes, it’s a concern,” he said. “Any product that can be consumed that can cause some level of intoxication should be controlled and regulated to protect the public.”
Hansen said if it’s being marketed without regulations or testing that’s an issue as well.
Then again, he said, people will abuse all kind of substances to get high.
“There’s a lot of substances that people abuse like gasoline or sniffing glue,” he said.
Shasta County Sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Foster, who heads the North State Initiative California Multi-Jurisdictional Methamphetamine Enforcement Team, said he and other drug agents were briefed on the substance but haven’t encountered it while serving any search warrants.
“I think it’s so new it’s not up on anyone’s radar yet,” he said.
Deckert said while there are significant health concerns associated with spice, the full extent is unknown because the substance itself remains largely unknown. His advice to people wanting to try it is simple:
“Don’t do it.”
Facts about JWH-018:
Likely to have the same effects in humans as THC.
Has been used in basic scientific research to identify cannabinoid receptors in the brain.
Decreases overall activity and body temperature, relieves pain, causes muscle rigidity.
Likely to produce psychoactive effects in humans.
By Amanda Winters
May 1, 2010