Chapel Hill, N.C. — Legal marijuana is back in North Carolina. Just months after the state banned the sale of synthetic marijuana, manufacturers tweaked the ingredients, claiming the products are legal. As the WRAL Investigates team found, that might not be the case.
Marijuana alternatives – sometimes known as K2, Spice or herb – can be tough for law enforcement to track. They are often labeled as herbal incense or potpourri, which is not supposed to be smoked.
Using hidden cameras, WRAL News employees recently found two Chapel Hill stores selling the alternatives as a legal form of pot. One store presented the product in an unmarked plastic baggie.
At Hazmat, on Franklin Street, an undercover WRAL News employee asked the owner what one of the products was like.
“Just like marijuana,” the man said, adding that the high is usually good “for about an hour and a half.”
At Expressions, also on Franklin Street, an undercover WRAL News employee asked if one of the store’s products was comparable to marijuana.
“Well, if you were going to smoke it, it would be comparable to marijuana, but this is potpourri,” the man said, smiling.
Scenes like this are playing out at stores near college campuses across the state. The practice is perfectly legal, some shop owners say, because their products don't contain the chemicals that were banned as of June 1.
WRAL Investigates showed its undercover video to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, who says he isn’t convinced that all of the products being sold are natural.
“Many, if not most, of these items in shops that are called ‘herb’ or ‘Spice’ are illegal under North Carolina law,” he said. “It’s very upsetting that these legal establishments would do that.”
Cooper says most of the new products that were tested at the State Crime Lab still contain banned chemicals and that some of the products are coming from Florida and China. WRAL News traced one brand to a company in Minnesota.
The Attorney General's Office says it's up to individual police and sheriff's departments to enforce the new law. No statewide effort is in place to crack down on them.
The owners of Hazmat and Expressions said they rely on the people they buy from to be honest about the ingredients. The mysterious ingredients and how they affect people are the reasons behind the ban and the concern.
Will, a biomedical engineering major who asked WRAL News not to use his last name, said he started using alternative marijuana this past summer after breaking up with his girlfriend. He bought the product in a small, unmarked baggie from a store in Chapel Hill.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘This is legal. It doesn’t really seem to be harmful,’” he recalled.
Will quickly discovered some frightening side-effects.
“It was scary – very, very scary. I thought I was going to die,” he said. “I found myself in a state of paralysis. I couldn’t move.”
Will says he ended up with a $200-a-week addiction, a stint in rehab and a year off school.
“It changed my personality. It caused me to do things I would never do in a sober state,” he said. “It turned me into a compulsive spender.”
Will says he is trying to get his life together and that he won’t be able to graduate with his friends.