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Tokin' Gesture?

The Louisiana Legislature just voted unanimously to ban "mojo," or synthetic marijuana, which is marketed nationwide as "herbal incense." Is this sound drug policy ... or just 21st-century Reefer Madness?

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On a YouTube video, New Orleans resident "Justin504him" reclines in his bedroom, packing a glass pipe with "NolaGold" and lighting up. He takes a few tokes. His eyes glaze over. He offers his review: "So, for the first hit, it gets good, and the second gets betterrr ..."

  "Justin504him" is an Internet connoisseur of smokables, but he's not smoking weed, and what he is smoking isn't illegal — yet. It's a mix of herbs and spices sprayed with a synthetic derivative of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, and marketed at head shops, some convenience stores and on the Internet under the euphemistic umbrella of "herbal incense." In other parts of the country, it's called "K2" or "spice." In New Orleans, it's known generically as "mojo," which is also a popular brand of the stuff. And — to the delight of stoners and the dismay of law enforcement — mojo use doesn't show up in standard drug tests.

  Mojo's popularity, potency and availability sent Louisiana lawmakers scrambling in the past month. Rep. Ricky Templet, R-Gretna, and Sens. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, and Nick Gautreaux, D-Meaux, led the pack in presenting bills to ban the sale of mojo statewide. The bills passed both houses unanimously, and Kyle Plotkin, spokesman for Gov. Bobby Jindal, says the governor supports the ban. Mojo could be illegal in Louisiana as early as August; those convicted of distributing it could get up to five years in prison, while casual users could face six months behind bars. And Louisiana isn't the only state with mojo on the mind. Kansas banned it in January; Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee have passed, or are in the midst of passing, their own prohibitions.

  No one seriously believes mojo is really "herbal incense" — and no one disputes mojo will get you stoned, or, at least, slow your roll. So far, no deaths have been officially attributed to its use, and its distribution methods keep it off the criminal black market for drugs. Pot fans claim that more than a million Americans are arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol each year (according to statistics from Mothers Against Drunk Driving) while the use of marijuana, synthetic or natural, causes far fewer fatalities, if any.

  Is the Louisiana Legislature heading off a future problem? Or is banning mojo just the latest in law enforcement's unsuccessful "war on drugs"?

Behind the counter, there's another store, this one guarded by a staff member, and in that other store there's another counter.

  In the back room of the Herb Import Co. on Canal Street, there's the usual head shop stuff: glass pipes, one-hitters, bats and bongs with alien head stickers — but nobody is here to buy pot. Behind the glass of the second counter there are a few packets and containers from Mojo and Experience brands — which are clearly labeled as incense.

  The employees there shake their heads in response when asked about mojo's use or popularity. They may as well make the mouth zipper gesture and throw away an imaginary key — this stuff is for you and only you to figure out, and it's their job to take your money. Business is good: a 1-gram packet is $27.50 with tax. The more popular (and potent) 3-gram serving is $50.

  A bright red Mojo packet, this one 3 grams, with a voodoo doll on the packaging, says its ingredients may include bay bean, blue lotus, pink lotus, Siberian motherwort, marshmallow, stevia leaf and "aroma essences." But bold, black, all-caps lettering warns "SOLD AS INCENSE ONLY" and "NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION."

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  The RA Shop, which has numerous locations in south Louisiana, also sells similar substances under brand names like Puff, Spice and Serenity Now, while the Herb Import Co. has a brand that reflects its New Orleans roots: Chocolate City. NolaGold, which features a fleur-de-lis on the package, is sold on the Web for $45 for 3 grams, though it can be found on eBay for as little as $25.

  One gram of Experience's Mayan Dream has an almost-see-through silver package with a black label. Its directions for use: "Place up to 500 mg in your favorite vessel & burn. Effects will last 30-60 minutes. Use with caution: Do not use while operating a motor vehicle or machinery, if you are pregnant or nursing, or if you are taking any prescription or non-prescription medication or drugs."

  Ingredients: "This resin is a proprietary herbal blend of 100% herbal isolates and extracted herbs including: Piper methysticum, Sceltium tortuosom, Amsonia tabemaemontana, Calcycanthus occidentalis, 5-HTP."

  Those ingredients are mostly harmless plant matter. It's the "aroma essences" and chemical compounds like 5-HTP and HU-210 that give users the high — and that concern lawmakers and law enforcement. A March 2009 bulletin from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Association (DEA) warned, "Based on anecdotal reports, HU-210 is hundreds of times more potent than THC; thus, the trace amounts detected in the above case are physiologically active, and these materials may be viewed as 'stealth marijuana.'" (The DEA did not cite its "anecdotal reports," or its sources.)

  Dr. William George, pharmacology professor emeritus at Tulane University, supports the imminent ban. "Most of these compounds are synthetically generated in a laboratory," he says. "They may or may not have been concocted by a legitimate laboratory. You don't know what you're buying, you don't know how clean it is, you don't know if there are bad chemicals in there."

  That's Sen. Francis Thompson's concern as well. While stressing he's not a drug advocate, the north Louisiana senator acknowledges the difference between marijuana and its synthetic equivalent. "This is new," he says of mojo. "Marijuana has been around since the beginning of time.

  "When you spray these cannibinoids," he adds, "it's not evenly sprayed. They don't have scientific equipment to do that. You get different levels of the euphoric substance. Whether or not you're for legalizing marijuana, there's no reason to participate in that."

  Templet says he learned about mojo from a constituent. "About three months ago, before the legislative session, I received a call from a parent from my district with some concerns," Templet told Gambit. "She found out her son was smoking it, and he had upper respiratory issues. He could go to a local convenience store and buy this off the shelf, and I was really blown away by that." The result was Templet's House Bill 173.

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  Templet also provided Gambit with a letter from Mike Slocum, a retired law enforcement veteran from Rapides Parish, who wrote that his son smoked the incense every day for a couple of months and exhibited symptoms of bipolarism. "He passed a psychological exam that determined he did not have bipolar but was extremely addicted to K2," Slocum wrote. According to Slocum, his son has been hospitalized several times from the aftereffects of smoking mojo.

  "The chemical makeup in his brain has been chemically altered," Templet says of Slocum's son. "He's been in an institute for a while and would do anything to combat this product." Slocum, who was a candidate for sheriff of Rapides Parish in 2007, did not return calls from Gambit.

"Back when I was growing up, people were smoking banana leaves," recalls Charlie Smith, a lobbyist who represented what he calls "a small association of retailers" during the mojo hearings in Baton Rouge. Smith's clients lost their attempts to defeat, delay or dilute the mojo ban, but Smith still thinks banning mojo is much ado about very little.

  "The deal is, they took a legal substance and made it illegal because some kids got high on it," Smith says. "There's any of a thousand things anyone can sniff that have been proven dangerous."

  Smith has no illusions as to the uses for "herbal incense."

  "Oh, they're smokin' it, there's no doubt about it," he says. "Nobody's using it to make a room smell pretty. [But] when you take an item out of legal commerce, you move it over to the black market or the Internet. Any kid who's 8 years old knows how to use the Internet, and it'll still be available there."

  What about restricting its sale in Louisiana to adults only, or restricting the places it can be sold? "We suggested all that and got zero cooperation," Smith says of his lobbying efforts. "They didn't need to compromise because they had the votes."

Is mojo a fast-growing menace? "It really does seem to have sped up in the last couple of months," says Jessica Wehrman, communications director for the Virginia-based American Association of Poison Control Centers.

  AAPCC's National Poison Data System shows that, in all of 2009, U.S. poison centers received 12 calls reporting K2 exposures. As of April 26, they had received 231 this year alone. (An "exposure" is not an overdose; it is defined as someone presenting at a poison control center or hospital having used the drug.) The mojo calls this year have spanned 15 states, including Louisiana.

  At Touro Infirmary, emergency room doctors are aware of synthetic marijuana, says Touro spokesperson Christine Albert, but they say they "usually don't see many people presenting in the emergency department" because of reactions. "When they do, it's usually in conjunction with another drug, whether it's over-the-counter, like cough syrup, or non-over-the-counter drugs," Albert says. She says Touro doctors haven't noticed an increase or trend in ER patients reporting complications from mojo use.

  Allen St. Pierre is the executive director of the Washington D.C.-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which has been fighting to get pot legalized since 1970. St. Pierre says NORML isn't advocating for the legalization of mojo. In fact, NORML objects to mojo for reasons that are the exact opposite of the Louisiana Legislature's: "Maybe pot's better," St. Pierre says. "Natural things are always better than chemical things. From a public health point of view, it would be healthier just to smoke real pot. [Mojo is] an inferior high."

  St. Pierre thinks the attempts to stamp out mojo have actually increased its popularity. "Six months ago, very few people knew what K2 or spice was — it's the banning of it that's inspired all this interest. Its popularity rises on the back side of its illegality," adding that he thinks the current vogue for banning the substance is "hysteria."

  Smith foresees unexpected blowback when mojo is banned in Louisiana. "It's a rich kid's drug, or, I should say, a rich kid's purchase," he says. "The kids at the exclusive schools are going to be the ones who get their hands on it and get into trouble, and their parents are going to say, 'Oh, my little Mary or Suzie or Tiffany got popped, and what are we gonna do now?'"

Mojo will be outlawed in Louisiana as soon as Jindal can sign it into law, but lawmakers' standards when it comes to regulating intoxicants are hardly consistent. In the same session in which mojo was unanimously banned, a Senate committee killed Senate Bill 203 by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, which would require the state's drive-thru daiquiri shops to use only solid lids, rather than ones that could be punctured with a straw. (A daiquiri without a straw is legal in a moving vehicle; insert a straw and you have an open container, which is illegal.)

  Chris Young, a liquor industry lobbyist, testified that the liquor industry was "opposed" to changing current state law.

  The result? By summer's end, mojo fans in Louisiana could be resorting to the black market to get their buzz on — while it will still be legal to drive away from a daiquiri shop with a gallon-sized Hurricane tankard in your cup holder.

  Now that's the kind of legislative mojo that head shops have to envy.

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