DIXON — According to charging documents, the man accused of killing Doug Morigeau and injuring his wife Cheryl during a home invasion in Dixon Dec. 6, Nathan Lee William Calvert, confessed to attacking the Morigeaus after smoking “Spice” for nearly two weeks “almost constantly.”
Spice is a street name for products containing synthetic cannabinoid chemicals, and hallucinogens marketed as synthetic marijuana.
Most synthetic cannabinoids are derived from the original chemical compound dubbed “JWH-018.” John W. Huffman, an organic chemist at Clemson University, sought to create a chemical that bound to the CB1 and CB2 receptors in the brain as marijuana does.
“They had a legitimate research purpose,” said Montana Department of Justice Forensic Science Division Chemist Annalivia Harris. “They were trying to figure out why the (CB1 and CB2) receptors are in our brains and what other drugs bind there. There were a lot of really good scientists working on this with good intentions.”
Unfortunately, good intentions only go so far. In the early 2000s, people around the world were getting sick and dying as a result of consuming incense and potpourri-like products sold in gas stations, adult book and video stores and smoke shops. A chemical analysis of the products revealed JWH-018 and compounds like it were present in the products.
These products are marketed as producing a marijuana-like high when smoked.
They are also very dangerous.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Spice users have been taken to Poison Control Centers around the world and report symptoms including, “Rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion, and hallucinations. Spice can also raise blood pressure and cause reduced blood supply to the heart (myocardial ischemia), and in a few cases it has been associated with heart attacks. Regular users may experience withdrawal and addiction symptoms.
“Some users report psychotic effects like extreme anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations,” the NIDA website states.
According to charging documents, Calvert admitted to experiencing hallucinations and paranoia.
Nationally, synthetic cannabis sent nearly 12,000 people to the emergency room in 2010 alone. More than one-third of these people were between the ages of 12 and 17.
Earlier this year, 22-year-old Michael Terron Daniel, of Waco, Texas, was arrested for attacking a neighbor and eating his family dog alive while under the influence of K-2 — a type of synthetic cannabis.
In late November, an Arizona man on Spice drove his car into the side of a convenience store. He told law enforcement he thought it was a parking spot.
Tucker Cipriano and Mitchell Young of Pontiac, Mich., were charged with first degree murder this month after the two men beat Cipriano’s father to death with baseball bats. They also attacked Cipriano’s wife and son. Both men were under the influence of Spice.
A simple Google search containing the phrase, “Synthetic marijuana murder” yields many more equally disturbing acts of violence carried out by individuals under the influence of the drug.
Doug Morigeau’s murder is among them.
The danger, according to Harris, is that these drugs have never been studied for consumption in humans. They do not undergo the rigorous testing required by the FDA; they are manufactured outside the United States with no oversight whatsoever and marketed to young Americans.
“We have no idea how it will affect these people, and that’s what really scares me,” she said.
As many of these products are clearly labeled, “Not for human consumption,” Harris believes the manufacturers of these drugs are intentionally circumventing the DEA and FDA. In doing so, they are not only able to sell the product, but they may also manufacture it without any kind of quality control.
Harris said the process involves dissolving chemicals (a white powder) into an organic solvent and spraying a plant material with this solvent.
“It makes it look like it should be a safe material, but I don’t think people realize that these chemicals are present. There’s also no quality control, so you don’t know what else is in there, how potent it is or how much is present,” Harris explained.
“If something is not controlled, it somehow implies that it’s also safe,” Harris said. “That is not the case at all. They’re not controlled because they’re brand new and we haven’t been able to study them.
When asked if she has ever consumed any of these chemicals, Harris said, “There’s no way. I’ve analyzed them and I know what’s in them. No way.”
Montana Rep. Tom Berry knows the dangers of the drug trade all too well. His son was kidnapped by a drug ring over a $500 debt, tortured, executed and his body burned “beyond recognition.” For this reason, Attorney General Steve Bullock asked him to champion a bill outlawing synthetic cannabis.
House Bill 185 went into effect in April 2011 and outlawed all known synthetic cannabinoids and Salvia — a popular hallucinogen.
Mark Long, Chief of the Montana Narcotics Bureau Division of Criminal Investigations, said the law made a big difference. While the bill was being written, Long said he knew lawmakers would ask him how prevalent the problem was. In order to answer that question, Long made frequent stops into gas stations and smoke shops across the state while traveling to see where synthetic marijuana was sold.
“It was everywhere — I mean, everybody was selling it,” he said. “We’ve seen a decrease in over-the-counter sales of it, but it’s still readily available over the Internet, and some states don’t have controls on it. There’s still a lot of it around.”
Different versions of the synthetic drug are still sold at locations throughout the state and are readily available online.
While most smoke shops in Missoula no longer sell the product, they directed inquiries to adult book and video stores in the area. Several of these shops confirmed over the phone that they still sell Salvia and while they no longer sell Spice, they do sell “a wide variety of incense.”
“My agency still just tells (sellers) that it’s illegal and to get it out of there,” Long said. “We’re going on a year and a half with this law; you’d think everyone would be warned by now.”
The problem, according to law enforcement, is that federal regulations require the drug’s chemical composition be written into any law that outlaws it. This presents a unique issue for legislators and law enforcement officers alike.
Because these drugs are entirely synthetic, their chemical makeup can be altered slightly within a matter of days. This creates a new drug chemically different from the banned substance, but producing similar effects.
Montana’s legislature meets every year and a half, meaning the process for creating new laws regarding synthetic marijuana takes much longer than the chemists creating new designer drugs.
“This is such a new thing for us; this idea of making new drugs that aren’t controlled en masse caught us back in 2010 completely unaware,” Harris said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t general enough in our wording (in HB 185), so they started to find ways around the law and we started seeing all these new kinds of drugs.
“They were better than we were at figuring out how to make new drugs.”
Rep. Berry said he’d introduced an update to HB 185 last week. The new bill adds bath salts (similar to synthetic cannabinoids) and updates the original list of banned cannabinoids.
Bath Salts are designer drugs that often contain synthetic cathinones. The effect is said to be similar to amphetamines and cocaine, and the side effects are just as dire as synthetic cannabis.
The new bill is 35 pages long. Thirty of these pages contain the chemical compositions of new synthetic cannabinoids created after HB 185 was passed in 2011. Even so, Long said the drugs won’t die so easily.
“You can’t list them all, and even if you do, the manufacturers just come out with new ones,” Long said.
As far as the synthetic marijuana goes, “They’re always going to stay ahead of us, that’s the problem,” Long said. “I remember a few years ago when meth was the huge problem that it was, people kept asking me, ‘When is this going to stop?’ and I’d say, ‘When they come up with something better.’
“They have come up with something ‘better,’ and I think that might be a reason why meth use has dropped off.”
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