BRATTLEBORO -- A substance linked to what national drug-control authorities have dubbed a "rapidly emerging threat" may have surfaced in Brattleboro Friday morning.
Police said they seized items at a downtown business that allegedly contain a just-banned chemical that is a synthetic cannabinoid used in substances termed "potpourri" or "fake weed."
Further tests are required, and no charges have been filed. But police Chief Gene Wrinn also said police have seen a few locals who were "experiencing physical and psychological effects" from the drug.
"It's an indicator that it's here," Wrinn said.
Police said the 11 a.m. search took place on Harmony Place but did not identify the business due to an ongoing investigation. A person who answered the phone at the Harmony Underground store told the Reformer that he had no comment about the serving of a search warrant.
"The business has not been shut down, and the business owner is cooperating with the investigation," Wrinn said.
He added that the owner allowed police to take some items that were not on the search warrant.
"He doesn't want to be found to be in possession of something illegal," Wrinn said.
But police believe there was a banned substance in the shop. They seized items bearing labels such as Twilight Zone, Crippler, Tales from the Crypt and Disorderly from a display cabinet, suspecting that they contain a chemical called 5F-UR-144.
"The substances are being sold as ‘potpourri,' but people are smoking it," Wrinn said. "It has had hallucinogenic effects on them."
The packages are labeled "not for human consumption," so they aren't required to carry a list of ingredients, Wrinn said.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy identifies several health risks associated with synthetic cannabinoids including agitation, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, rapid heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, tremor, seizures, hallucinations and paranoia.
There is risk of "psychotic episodes, withdrawal and dependence associated with the use of synthetic cannabinoids," according to a fact sheet distributed by the federal agency.
Local emergency responders have had a few cases involving the drug, Wrinn said.
"We've been to at least two incidents where we've learned that people had used this stuff," he said.
The Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition said some users see synthetic marijuana use as "a way to get high and not get caught."
"The ingredients in synthetic marijuana, often called herbal incense, are constantly changing and it's a challenge to determine if they contain narcotics or other chemicals which could be harmful in any form," coalition administrators said in a prepared statement. "The producers of these products are often able to stay one step ahead of law enforcement by modifying the chemical compounds as soon as a chemical is prohibited to keep the product legal."
Use of the substances have "increased significantly," officials say. The Partnership at Drugfree.org cites a 2011 survey showing that 11.4 percent of high-school seniors had used synthetic marijuana within the past year.
That prevalence is four times greater than inhalants, four times greater than cocaine and eight times greater than methamphetamine, the partnership said.
Wrinn said the growing problem was discussed at a conference he attended last month in Montpelier, and police are on the lookout.
"We don't want people possessing it, selling it or distributing it," he said.
Brattleboro police said the penalty for possessing any of the state's banned substances is one year in prison and a fine of up to $2,000. Selling an illegal hallucinogenic drug is punishable by up to three years in prison and a $25,000 fine, police said.
Whether any of that will apply to Friday's search-and-seizure operation is unclear. Wrinn said the materials will be tested at a state lab to confirm the presence of a banned substance.
"Then we'll make a determination on who, if anybody, will be charged," he said.