Herbal incense new way people getting high

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by Katie Moore / Eyewitness News

wwltv.com

Posted on February 15, 2010 at 11:15 PM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 17 at 6:21 PM

NEW ORLEANS - It's sold as incense, but most people aren't lighting it for its smell. Many are smoking it to get a marijuana-like high. It's called mojo, or spice, and many other varieties are being sold all across the metro New Orleans area.

But there are no regulations on it, and law enforcement has a warning for parents tonight about what people are calling "legal weed." 

So is it legal?

“Weed, here in Louisiana anyway, it's illegal. My job, it requires drug testing. So, that's one reason I don’t any longer smoke weed,” said French Quarter tour guide and Internet videoblogger Casey Nunez.

He admits, he's smoked plenty of marijuana, but now, he’s smoking mojo.

“Very similar to the feel of marijuana when you're under the influence of it,” Nunez said.

It's sold as incense at herb shops, also known as "Ra" or “head” shops. And Nunez said it's everywhere.

“It's very evident in the French Quarter. You've got a lot of people walking down the street with their pipes smokin’ the mojo,” he said.
There are different varieties of incense that people are smoking. Some are called "spice" or "spice gold". And it's so widespread in New Orleans that it's even sold at some convenience stores and gas stations.

“I'd say it's readily available in the metropolitan area and on the Internet,” said New Orleans Police Department Deputy Superintendent of Narcotics, James Scott.

And just about anyone can buy it.  Some shops only sell to people over age 18, but others have no age restrictions.

“It allows the children to become intoxicated in some cases, probably right under their parents' noses,” Scott said.

Mojo creates a marijuana-like high, but it doesn't smell like marijuana. And apparently, it doesn't show up on standard drug tests.

Nunez took a home test after smoking mojo. He sent us a picture of his negative result.

“This will not show up on a field test kit because the field test kits test for THC,” said Special Agent in Charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Jimmy Fox.

Police and the DEA use field kits to test and see if drugs they find contain THC, the chemical in marijuana that federal law deems an illegal drug.

Only detailed, DEA analysis has shown that a combination of three synthetic chemicals, including the compound jw8-018, is what gives smokers that marijuana-like high.

The DEA has included that specific combination in their list of controlled substances, but only detailed chemical analysis in a lab will find that combination of chemicals. The field test kits don't.

“Spice in and of itself is a herbal. But what it makes it illegal is when these compounds, synthetically, have been used to include some of those ingredients that give that euphoria of THC,” Fox said.

The problem even the DEA has is that manufacturers keep changing the chemicals used to mimic THC, and each combination would have to be both outlawed and traceable in order to enforce it.

Under Louisiana law, that specific, synthetic THC combination is not illegal. 

Plus, packages for mojo and other "spice" products only say they contain a group of natural herbs. They also read, "not for human consumption."

“It's not something that we could arrest them for. It creates a problem,” Scott said.

Even Nunez will tell you, it packs a more powerful punch than most marijuana.

According to Scott, the Crimestoppers drug hotline isn't getting a large number of calls about mojo. They’ve only received one from the North shore and one from the South shore in the past two years.

However, owners of local “Ra” shops told Eyewitness news they are getting calls from parents wondering how their teens got their hands on it, and what exactly it is.

“We're extremely concerned about it because what we've seen so far is that a lot of young adults are starting to experiment with it,” Fox said.

The irony is, police say mojo is nearly twice the average street price for marijuana in the New Orleans area.

“Very expensive,” Nunez said. WWL-TV Reporter Katie Moore asked, “People are paying it? Why?” Nunez replied, “Because it's that good. And it's legal. You're not doing something that you need to worry about incarceration or being fined or put in jail.”

It's likely the same reason teens are trying it, and it's why police want to warn parents and employers that the jar of incense might be a way for people to get high.

The state of Kansas just recently outlawed mojo or spice on January 1.

It's already illegal in a handful of European countries.

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