Local law enforcement tries to quash new high of Spice

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Spice has become a popular alternative to marijuana for drug users who have been able to purchase the synthetic cannabis from most smoke shops up until a nationwide crackdown by the Drug Enforcement Administration this summer.

In Valencia County, the crackdown has been bad for business for at least two local smoke shop owners.

Hisham Salameh, owner of Peralta's Bubble Lounge, said his business has dropped 80 percent since he stopped selling Spice in July.

He said Spice has less effects than does marijuana.

Last month, Belen police executed a search warrant and seized dozens of containers Monday of what they believe is synthetic marijuana from a local smoke shop on South Main Street.

Nearly 460 containers were seized from the Belen Smoke Shop.

The substance in the containers still needs to be tested at the state crime laboratory to determine if it is illegal.

No arrests have been made in the case.

Salameh said the Peralta location was "very busy" before the DEA intervened. He said half of his customers came from Albuquerque.

"It's not just here," Salameh said. "It's all over New Mexico."

Salameh, who also owns the Bubble Lounge in downtown Albuquerque, said the Peralta business, which has been open for three years, caters to a younger crowd and sells hookah.

He said the Peralta venue offers people an area to relax and listen to music.

"I opened (the store) because Valencia County needed somewhere where kids could come relax," Salameh said.

In July, the DEA announced more than 90 people were arrested, and more than 5 million packets of finished designer synthetic drugs were seized as part of a nationwide raid.

Officials claim the synthetic drugs are often marketed as bath salts, Spice, incense, or plant food. More than $36 million was also seized.

According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, 2,906 calls relating to human exposure to synthetic marijuana were received in 2010. That number doubled in 2011.

President Obama signed a bill earlier this year that deemed synthetic marijuana illegal.

Eduardo Chavez, a DEA special agent in Albuquerque, said users like the synthetic drug because it doesn't show up on drug tests.

He said Spice went from the nightclub scene in Europe in the late 1990s to where it eventually morphed into a "gray area" where it could be found at local smoke shops.

"Users could still gain a high and retain their employment if they happened to be randomly screened," Chavez said.

Chavez said the drug, sometimes marketed as incense, ranks on the same level as LSD and PCP, and has been sold in containers no larger than a sugar packet.

Warnings often read, "Not for human consumption" of a drug that has 38 times the amount of THC in marijuana, according to Chavez.

"It's new," Chavez said. "There is no consistent answer of how it affects the body (long-term)."

According to a police report, an 18-year-old man was transported to the hospital in May after his friend said he had a "bad reaction" to smoking Spice at the Bubble Lounge in Peralta.

The man was sweating profusely and was very lethargic before he was transported, the report said.

Chavez said buyers would use code words to let the seller know they weren't with law enforcement.

Belen police said the containers at the Belen Smoke Shop were hidden in a storage area behind a large blanket hanging inside the store.

"You would have to have a rapport with the clerk to purchase it," Chavez said. "It's completely irrational."

Chavez questioned why smoke shop owners are selling something marketed as incense in gram quantities when materials used to freshen your house can be purchased in greater amounts at local grocery stores.

He said federal and local law enforcement authorities are going to do their best to get it off of store shelves.

"We are trying to eliminate it, period," Chavez said. "It's an illegal drug with no medical value. We are treating it like anything else that is illegal."


-- Email the author at bruffner@news-bulletin.com.