Tampa, Florida - Avid tobacco smokers like a change every now and then. Some turn to hookah cafes -- that's tobacco soaked in molasses filtered through water.
"It's a good feeling," says one woman.
It's that feeling some look for in the wrong places. A man on the street pulls out a marijuana joint from a box of cigarettes. "It's real!" he says.
While a joint can land one behind bars, a new herbal incense blend is becoming an alternative to marijuana. It appeared in the U.S. a year ago and it's seen as the new "legal" high.
"It is very calming, it's euphoric, not intoxicating to me," says Colby Wise, owner of "It's All Good" smoke shop in Bradenton. Wise sells the herbal incense known by a long list of brand names, including Black Mamba, Spice, K-2. The cost is about $50 for a 3-gram bag.
"I never once pushed these products. I don't believe any of these other stores are pushing them they don't have to because people are seeking them out," says Wise.
What's the attraction? The herbal mixture is sprayed with synthetic-cannabinoid chemicals. One chemical is called JWH-018 and it's similar to THC found in marijuana, but research shows it's 4 to 5 times more potent.
"In fact, it may be more dangerous than marijuana," says pharmacist and USF professor Glenn Whelan. The herbal incense is a rapidly growing trend that concerns Whelan.
"The addiction potential, the dependence potential even the withdrawal potential can be more intense than what marijuana can normally be," he adds.
The cannabis-like chemicals appear on the Drug Enforcement Administration web site as a "drug and chemical of concern."
That may be due to its improper use. Spice, K2 and products like it are marketed as an herbal incense... key word being incense. It's meant to be burned, not smoked. There are natural herbal smoking blends for that.
"The smoking herbs are different types of herbs that are made for human consumption. You can smoke these and give you different euphoric smoking effects," explains Leo Calzadilla, who owns Purple Haze smoke shops in St. Petersburg.
"This is all aroma therapy incense. You have K2, K2 Summit, Serenity, Kind Spice," says Calzadilla. Wise and Calzadilla both card customers to make sure they are 18 years old or older.
Calzadilla says if someone comes into his store asking how to smoke one of the herbal incense blends, the sale is over. "We won't sell it to them. The intent is not meant to smoke it, we won't condone it," says Calzadilla.
He says the warning on the packaging is clear, "not meant for human consumption."
"If I felt I was selling a product that wasn't safe, I wouldn't sell it," adds Wise from Bradenton.
Wise knows some customers will ignore the warning, that's why he tries to educate them. Wise says, "If they chose to smoke it, they need to be aware it has not been tested."
A U.S. scientist created the drug mimicking marijuana in 1995 to help chemo therapy patients get back their appetite, but unlike marijuana, there are no medicinal benefits and testing in humans has never been done. Whelan says smokers are playing Russian roulette. "Not only dealing with a more potent compound, you don't know how much being sprayed on these leaves," warns Whelan.
Since the drug is not federally regulated, it dodges traditional drug tests. "It's not being caught, it's slipping underneath the radar," says Whelan.
Kansas is the first state to outlaw herbal incense blends like K2. Seven other states are close: Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, Illinois. Florida is not on the list, yet.
Wise hopes legislators in Florida think carefully before banning herbal incense blends like K2. "Please do not criminalize it, regulate it and enjoy the tax dollars," he says.
Wise says smoking the herbal blend for him is equal to drinking a glass of wine for others, and he is not breaking the law. "With these particular products, it gives an alternative to still be law abiding citizens and function in society just fine."
Experts say the only way to detect the synthetic marijuana-like chemical is a blood test given shortly after it's smoked. The National Center for Drug Free Sports is developing a test to easily detect the cannabis-like chemical in NFL and NCAA athletes.
The test should be ready by this fall.