OGDEN -- Police can only watch as people hurt themselves because producers and sellers of the synthetic marijuana known as spice find ways around the law.
The Utah Legislature in February banned the chemicals that, at the time, were used to make spice. But the producers of the drug have switched the chemicals to make a similar product that technically is not illegal but is still harmful.
Lawmakers are so frustrated with the situation that some are considering trying to give a select governmental board the power to ban substances without having to wait for legislative approval.
The Ogden Fire Department reported to the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force that it had about 20 overdoses related to spice in the past month.
Now, eight months after the ban, "spice has become a significant issue of substances being abused that we are dealing with," said Ogden Fire Deputy Chief Chad Tucker.
McKay-Dee Hospital Center's emergency room still sees a lot of patients high on spice, said Chris Dallin, hospital spokesman.
Kelly Imlay, the director of the emergency department at the Ogden hospital, told him she has seen overdoses because of spice.
People are buying the modified product at many of the same stores they were before the ban, said Lt. Darin Parke, strike force commander.
Some owners even send the spice to private out-of-state labs to get the substance checked against the list of what is banned, Parke said. Then, when police or strike force agents go into the store, the sellers can present a lab report that puts them in the clear regarding the law, he said.
"(The store owners) know what's going on. It's not that they aren't aware. They just don't care. ... It's disgusting," Parke said.
He is just as frustrated that his officers can do nothing about the substances that are hurting people.
And just because someone's spice use has not been notably harmful so far does not mean further exposure is safe, police warn.
Someone might buy the same spice product from a store five times without much incident, but the sixth time, the substance mixture might be the one that sends the user to the hospital, Parke said.
Even as officials identify the substances, they have to wait for the Legislature to come into session and broaden the ban.
"If you didn't get everything, you're powerless. ... You watch these kids overdosing and it's very frustrating," Parke said.
Lawmakers predicted that producers might circumvent the ban and are now looking at ways to come down harder on them.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clinton, was one of the legislators who pushed the ban. He and other lawmakers are working on a proposal to give a legislative drug advisory board the power to ban substances without legislative approval.
A new product is hurting people, and "six weeks later, it's banned ... kind of like what the (Food and Drug Administration) does," Ray said.
The full Legislature would revisit the ban during its normal session and determine if it should stay or be discontinued, he said.
The proposal could be controversial without careful tinkering, said Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, who has also been working on it.
Giving the board the power to pass even temporary laws and take away rights without going through the normal legislative process may run counter to the state's Constitution.
"I think that we support the concept, but we have to be real careful how it's executed and what type of powers that they have," Froerer said.
It's an idea that Froerer and other proponents of spice regulation were toying with before the ban and are now trying to bring up during the special session, he said.
However, the issue didn't make the schedule, particularly because of the redistricting issues. If the special session goes on until at least Oct. 17, legislators may have time to talk about the proposal. Otherwise, lawmakers will have to wait until the 2012 legislative session.
Froerer recognizes that even with a ban against more identified substances, producers could still find other ways to push technically legal variations of spice.
However, he hopes the law can catch up and eventually make it so hard for producers to turn a profit that it's no longer worthwhile for them to fight for the drug.
But until then, there's little to nothing police can do about the people Ray calls "scum of the earth" who sell damaging drugs to those looking for legal highs.
"Those guys are real scumbags. It irritates me. They're no better than the Mexican cartels."