The herbal incense packages once lined the shelves of Augusta’s smoke shops, resembling an array of single-gram servings that were painted in tropical colors and marketed on witty catchphrases such as “Dark Night,” “Serenity Now” and “Ninja Crown.”
But now, three years later, synthetic marijuana products have long been banned by federal law and pulled from display cases. Phone records show at least 20 percent of Augusta’s 25 head shops have closed as a result.
Although the industry took a hit, Richmond County narcotics investigators are very much aware these sort of chemists are not quitting.
They’ve introduced a new legal form of the drug back on the market, but whether the potpourri mixtures will succeed is still up in the air. Experts predict they’ll fail, as many consumers have become more cautious and secretive about what’s in their water pipes, rolling papers and vaporizers.
“Manufacturers are always changing the ingredients and the process through which compounds are made, but the buzz the new blends produce are not as strong,” said Lt. Greg Meagher, a narcotics investigator at the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office.
Earlier in 2013, lawmakers broadened its ban against synthetic marijuana, adding 35 pages of outlawed chemical compositions that even Marlboro Man or Joe Camel wouldn’t be found hawking.
But narcotics investigators said tighter rules only challenged manufacturers to create substances not comprised of “cannabicyclohexanol” or the cannabinoids JWH-018, JWH-073, JWH-200, CP-47, which were all found by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to cause a marijuana-like high that produces laziness, hunger and mirthfulness.
Pat Morgan, a special agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said the state agency is aware of the effort to slip back into the market, but said his office, located in Thomson, only inspect a business if they receive information it is violating laws.
“We pretty much rely on local agencies and assist as necessary,” he said.
Meagher said the sheriff’s office has not seen or heard of a store distributing any new blends, but knows they’re out there, being exchanged in back rooms and behind counters.
Morgan said he believes much of the black market trade is minimal, as the industry, for the most part, quieted earlier this year after the owners of two Columbia County convenience stores – the Pumpkin Center in Harlem and the Lewiston Express in Evans – were indicted on 35 charges of selling synthetic marijuana.
Narcotics investigators found more than 1,500 packets of what was confirmed by the state crime lab to be synthetic marijuana behind the front counter, in the back office and at the homes of the stores’ owners.
Tony Williamson has been the general manager of a 4,000 square foot smoke shop in downtown Augusta now called Aficionados for more than 10 years.
He said the federal government’s addition of synthetic marijuana to the national Controlled Substance Act in 2011 resulted in the average life expectancy of a store in the tobacco industry’s “counter-culture” sector dropping to fewer than three years.
Williamson compared the shift to the current transition the country’s beverage industry is experiencing.
“Twenty years ago, coffee was the only energy drink out there you could buy,” he said. “Now, the market has alcohol-infused blends and other drinks that are made to put you to sleep. Just like tobacco, the industry growth has forced the government to take a closer look at how it’s regulated.”
Williamson said he was not surprised manufacturers were trying to circumvent the law. Today, he still gets phone calls and shoppers asking for spice, imploring him not to lie, that they know he has some hidden behind the counter.
“There’s always going to be a product people like and appreciate that will eventually become popular and profitable, be regulated and send some sellers out of the business,” he said. “It’s always evolving.”
Williamson said he quit selling synthetic marijuana the second it was banned. He still sells the paraphernalia commonly linked to the product.
Allen St. Pierre, the executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the rise and fall of “spice” led to the paraphernalia industry to become more “logically paranoid,” a distinction he said the market has held since 1981 when President Reagan’s administration started formulating its war on drugs.
St. Pierre said in the past 30 years his organization has gone hand in hand with cigarette companies to litigate for paraphernalia.
“Yeah, sure, if the paraphernalia is being used for illegal drugs that is a separate matter, but just the device, it seems to almost come down to a thought crime,” he said. “People often ask smokers, ‘What’s that being used for?”
St. Pierre said he does not believe the people making paraphernalia products think that they are being used for tobacco products.
“That’s part of the farce in all of this,” he said. “The folks who make the products know who is using it and for what reason, but because of the existing law they have to pretend otherwise.”
St. Pierre said unless there is marketing connecting a device to marijuana, such as cannabis leaves or references to pot, businesses are not doing anything illegal.
Williamson said he does not expect any relent in developing synthetic marijuana’s next niche.
“The money is so great some businesses are taking the same risks as the drug dealer on the corner,” he said. “You’d be surprised what people would risk for quick money.”