Produced by HuffPost's College Reporting Team
Will -- who asked that his last name be redacted for his own safety -- is a sophomore at Arizona State University who was arrested for possession of marijuana last year. The crime can potentially be considered a felony and offenders face up to 2 years in jail and a $150,000 fine in the state of Arizona. But there is something more dire on Will's mind than the legal and monetary implications.
The political science major and Arizona resident is dismayed at the thought of having to give up his favorite pastime: getting high. Since he was a first-time offender, Will was allowed to sign up for TASC, a random drug testing diversion program offered by the county Attorney's Office that requires a daily urine check for eighteen months. He considered his plight hopeless and has been forced to turn down any marijuana offered to him.
But then a funny thing happened. A close friend, currently serving in the US Marines, introduced Will to a marijuana-looking herb he bought at a local smoke shop while off-duty. He claimed that the substance, which is sold legally as incense, has very similar effects on the body as marijuana when inhaled. For Will, the icing on the cake was the fact that this "synthetic marijuana" doesn't appear on urine tests, a benefit utilized by his Marine friend to bypass the US military's strict policy against drug usage while off-duty.
For $30 to $40 dollars per gram of the green leafy product, Will had discovered a solution to his troubled situation in the marijuana alternative commonly known as "Spice". And while he "would never smoke it without being on TASC," Will says it serves as a means to relax and smoke socially with friends, an agreeable reminder of his prior lifestyle, and that the rehabilitation program still took him "out of the marijuana scene 100%."
Previously, there have been several products available in smoke shops that claimed to offer the same effects when inhaled, but popular opinion held that they were just a waste of time and money. But then last year, new individually-packaged leafy herbs, like the contentious K2, began to sprout up at smoke shop trade shows in Vegas and elsewhere which were sprayed with a synthetic chemical compound known as JWH-018, first developed in 1995 by John W. Huffman at Clemson University in South Carolina. This THC-like compound attaches itself to the cannabinoid receptors in the brain and induces effects extremely similar to inhaling marijuana, including dizziness, increased heart rate and increased appetite.
A local smoke shop near ASU's Tempe campus began selling the product roughly six months ago. Since then, they say it has "easily become the number-one seller out of our entire store, and growing more by the day."
Their biggest profit comes from a brand named Ocean Breeze, which goes for $30 a gram or $80 for three, and in only a few days "the store will easily fly through our on-hand stock and generate about $2400 in sales."
The smoke shop is also starting to notice repeat customers who often come in to refill on the "incense," but what those customers do with the herb is strictly personal business.
"If there is talk of inhaling or smoking it, we will refuse the sale and ask them to leave," says the shop's supervisor, Shannon Cafferty.
But the social acceptance of products like Spice is proving to be a complicated matter. Already, Missouri and Kansas legislatures are currently in the process of banning the designer cannabinoids, Georgia and Tennessee have just started talking about following suit, and the Drug Enforcement Agency currently labels it a "drug and chemical of concern", warning parents and local law enforcement to be alert of this "stealth marijuana."
Health risks also abound. The Delaware Department of Health and Human Services last week sent out a press release stating that three Sussex County residents were hospitalized over the misuse of K2, which is said to have induced troubled breathing and heart palpitations.
"It can't be healthy for you," concedes Will. "We already know the side effects of marijuana, but we don't know anything about these random herbs sprayed with chemicals."
The local smoke shop has caught on to the emerging signs and has stopped purchasing orders of the K2 brand, worried that the product's health concerns may soon cause it to be banned in Arizona as well. But it isn't quite ready to close up shop on other brands of the store's most profitable item, and the state has a history of keeping its legislative hands off of over-the-counter herbs.
Salvia, a similar herbal incense that when inhaled causes hallucinations, is outlawed in dozens of states and countries, yet is still very legal in Arizona. Sgt. Steve Carbajal of the Tempe Police says Spice is simply "not a problem we have seen yet in the city."
For now, Spice remains completely legal in a vast majority of states and countries and purchasable by anyone over the age of 18. And its legal status is quietly gaining the attention of many college students.
"I have not tried it. I'm from Michigan and support medicinal marijuana and I think alternative 'fake marijuana' will not be as successful because of its lack of potency. I think college students will look at synthetic cannabinoids as a novelty instead of a substitute," says Teagan Singer, a former ASU student.
Meanwhile Anna Ball, a premed undergraduate, says "I don't think it will affect students very much, I would think they'd rather just get high."
Some students believe it may change campus weed culture if it remains legal. Anthony Coronado, a hotel management major, "knows a friend who would rather smoke Spice over marijuana simply because it's legal."
A bigger potential impact of this emerging legal "high market" is a taxable and regulated arena that may easily attract business and participants away from its illegal black market look-a-like. It remains to be seen whether this will germinate into a bigger and more contentious issue, but until then, Will and other Spice aficionados will be happily and legally toking up.