When I was a high school senior I thought I was a clever little thing, certain that I could outwit my parents. I was 18 and almost had a high school diploma; the logic that dictated my decisions was foolproof, I was sure.
Thus did I walk into a head shop one day and purchase something called "spice," a then-legal, synthetic marijuana that I had heard would fool the drug tests that my parents so kindly administered to me via a plastic cup on the occasional, sparkling Monday morning.
What ensued was one of the most chilling experiences I can recall in my life. In short, my mind looked like a messed-up trip through a carnival, and there was no teddy-bear prize for making it through to the end. But in comparison to some, my story is excessively banal.
The production, distribution and popularization of synthetic marijuana — also known as K2, Black Mamba and Twilight, in addition to spice and other names — is the premise for Josh Louis and Chris Alonso's new film, Not For Human Consumption. The story follows Jay, a young man recently released from a three-year stint in prison, as he attempts to make something of himself. When he hears about the phenomenon of "herbal incense" that is sweeping Europe, he jumps on the opportunity to bring it to the United States.
Like any good movie with an element of suspense, things quickly go awry as we find ourselves rooting for a character that is surely doomed. But perhaps the most compelling aspect of the story is that it's loosely based on the life of its producer, Louis.
"It was an innocent idea to offer something as an alternative," he says. "When I got into it ... the few people who did know about it thought it was a safe product."
Louis was one of the first to produce and distribute herbal incense in the U.S., specifically in the West Palm Beach area of Florida. At the time, there were not any cases illustrating the potential dangers. More to the point, "there was no one overdosing or passing out," he says. But "soon there was competition, upping the levels [of chemicals]."
A year into growing the business, Louis says, he began to notice some of the negative aspects and decided to get out of the trade, just as everyone else was trying to get in. He and childhood friend, Alonso, both of whom had been in the film industry for years, decided right then to begin working on a script. It's not only formed of Louis' experience, but those of others whose stories were passed on to him.
Higher, faster, stronger
Despite Colorado having outlawed spice in July 2011, and the federal government doing the same in 2012, synthetic marijuana continues to make the news. In early September, various health organizations began an investigation after about 75 spice users showed up to Denver and Colorado Springs hospitals over a couple weeks. (Also, a Colorado Springs resident reportedly is currently suing a convenience store for selling a brand of herbal incense called "Mr. Smiley" to her 19-year-old son in 2011, which led to his death.)
The problem: It can be made with a vast number of different chemicals, meaning manufacturers can fairly easily work around what the government has specifically banned. Marketed as "herbal incense," the product bears the warning "not for human consumption," allowing sellers to get away with displaying it in their shops without the risk of liability.
The film isn't about the drug itself as much as it is about the characters it traps. Over 108 minutes, we watch as Jay's relationships with his family, friends and girlfriend deteriorate, and then follow his precarious journey to build them back up again. In one particularly poignant scene in which Jay and his father make unspoken amends, the silence heard over the scraping of salad bowls is conciliatory and yet tense.
There are some touching moments, though the film moves slow at times, then speeds up unexpectedly. The acting is also slightly shaky on occasion, and some messages are a bit overtly conveyed.
In talking with Louis, I get the sense that this film was supposed to be, to some degree, personal redemption for aiding in the proliferation of this business. But when I ask him if he considers himself an advocate for the anti-synthetic movement, his response is vague and noncommittal.
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"We wanted it [the drug] to be shown in equal light," he says. "It needs to be shown that it is not regulated. You have the right to do what you want and what's right for one person not might be right for the next, but if the masses are misusing it ..." And he trails off.
Though Louis' motive in making the film may not be entirely clear, I can tell you confidently from my experience that synthetic marijuana is not something to play with. If you're going to get high, do it the old-fashioned way — with glistening, organic green. Consult the ReLeaf insert in this week's paper for more on that.