State and federal governments seek to prohibit legal incense that users consider fake marijuana
When Margate police summoned Nancy Ferreira to a hospital emergency room on New Year's Eve, she saw her 14-year-old son having a seizure and struggling to breathe.
"He had 10 seizures in total and his blood pressure was extremely high," Ferreira said. "He didn't know I was there."
Ferreira's two sons, 14 and 17, had been smoking "Mr. Nice Guy herbal smoke blend," a brand of incense that is labeled "not for human consumption" according to Margate police. Her elder son spent 24 hours in the hospital and was not as severely injured, she said.
Officials do not know what Mr. Nice Guy is made of, and a West Palm Beach company that offers the product on the Internet won't talk about it.
But it appears similar to products with brand names like Spice, Black Mamba and K2, often sold by the gram, that federal and state governments are trying to regulate. Users who get these "incense" products at gas stations, convenience stores and head shops reportedly seek an effect similar to a marijuana high, and believe there will not be any trace in drug tests.
The teens told police officers that a friend bought Mr. Nice Guy for them and that they had smoked it before "because it's not illegal," according to a police report. They said they had never suffered such severe reactions.
Ferreira says blood and urine tests for her sons showed no traces of illegal substances, alcohol or narcotics. The Sun Sentinel is not identifying the teens because they are juveniles.
The federal government says these products may contain synthetic cannabinoids that were developed over the past 30 years for medical research. They are not FDA-approved for human consumption.
"Retailers say there is nothing on the package to say what it is, and that's the point," U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman Barbara Carreno said. "They're being advertised as more potent than marijuana, and marijuana can cause heart palpitations. There is concern whether this is actually even synthetic marijuana."
"This is not incense," Carreno said.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers has heard of adverse effects from smoking the incense from its 60 members across the United States since the last quarter of 2009, when there were 14 reported cases. In 2010, there were 2,862 cases. During the first four days of 2011, there were 42 calls for help.
The DEA says that medical practitioners have linked the products to problems including vomiting, excessively rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, seizures and hallucinations.
The Florida Poison Control Center in Miami gets at least one call a week about ill effects from incense smoking, said Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein, the center's medical director.
He called the incense products "bathtub brew" and said poison centers can have difficulty advising doctors or sick people who call. He has not heard of deaths from incense smoking.
"Depending on who made it, who knows what's in it?" Bernstein said. "There are inconsistent effects, and I have my doubts that it's even the same drug that is being sold by various manufacturers."
In November, the DEA announced it may categorize five synthetic cannabinoids as illegal drugs, and take them off the legal market for a year while government researchers investigate the products' effects on humans.
The incense is manufactured all around the world, the federal government says. At Bob's News and Books on Andrews Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, Mr. Nice Guy was sold out Tuesday.
Store manager Erin Steinberg said he's not restocking until he sees what happens with the proposed restrictions on the product. Meanwhile he sells a $20 vial of Black Mamba that resembles marijuana or green tea leaves.
He said the 10 incense brands he carries are a "minuscule" part of his business, but the products were the hit of a recent Las Vegas trade show.
"We comply completely with the law and you must be 18 to purchase it," Steinberg said. "It's not for human consumption and it states that on every pack or bottle that it's for incense purposes only."
And if customers get sick from smoking it?
"If they misuse the product, I can't help it," Steinberg said. "I'm not their parent."
Sixteen states have regulated the products in some fashion, according to the DEA, and there is pending legislation in both houses of the Florida Legislature that would criminalize use of three of the five chemicals the federal government seeks to regulate.
The legislation is on the agenda for a Jan. 11 hearing in the state Senate's criminal justice committee, said Florida Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs, who is a state prosecutor.
Porth said he supports the draft laws after hearing that prosecutors are having a hard time charging people who smoke fake marijuana, then drive impaired.
The proposed federal restrictions prompted four Minnesota retailers to file a federal lawsuit in Minneapolis to try and stop any ban on the sale or possession of the products.
The complaint alleges that the federal government's proposed restrictions on incense that contains synthetic cannabinoids will burden a $100 million dollar industry whose products have not been proven to be dangerous.
"My clients are not seeking to become part of the underworld," attorney Marc Kurzman said. "They are simply seeking to operate as they have been until there is scientific proof that these are harmful products."
Kurzman said if the ban goes into effect, "there are potentially tens of thousands of people who will become felons overnight."
He said he had never heard of Mr. Nice Guy, but that the buyer-beware concept should protect his clients.
"It's very dangerous to drink bleach and everyone knows that," he said, "but it's not illegal to drink bleach and you don't put people in jail for possessing it."
After spending the holiday weekend with her son in the pediatric intensive care unit at Plantation General Hospital, Ferreira said he likely will need future medical care. Both of her sons have returned to school and she is thankful to police, fire rescue and medical professionals.
But she's angry about the teens' poor decisions, and she has restricted their extracurricular activities.
"My first reaction was to punish them for the rest of their lives, but I think what they did was a lesson they'll never forget," Ferreria said. "It was a nightmare. My life is changed. My trust of them is tainted."
She also is upset that the products are legal and available in stores, "right up there next to energy drinks."
While she does not want to embarrass her sons by talking about what happened, Ferreira said, "I didn't know anything about this, and parents need to know and to question their kids. And kids need to know that just because it's legal, that doesn't mean it is safe."
Ferreria says she has talked with a special agent at the DEA and supports the proposed restrictions on the incense.
"I want to shut them down," she said about the manufacturers. "In my book, they're no better than the crack dealer on the corner."
Researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.
By Linda Trischitta, Sun Sentinel
6:37 p.m. EST, January 5, 2011