Herb cigarette causes alarm in Saint John, with users passing out near plaza

Over the past several months, Dave Hersey has been seeing a lot of people who appear to be in distress outside his Saint John business.

They’re stumbling and even passing out in the parking lot at Westwind Place on the west side, where Hersey manages the Fish and Brews Pub. The store next door has been selling a herbal cigarette that can knock people out.

“I see it here everyday,” said Hersey. “My concern is safety. Somebody’s going to get hurt.”

Last week, Hersey discovered and photographed a man lying unconscious by the back wheel of his parked pickup truck.

“I knew what was wrong with him. I knew that within 20 or 25 minutes he was going to be back up on his feet.”

The unresponsive middle-aged man was holding a cigarette between his fingers.

Herb Maestro cigarettes and potpourri can cause an ‘extreme’ high. The products start at $5.50 each. (CBC)

Hersey recognized the symptoms and knew the cigarette was one of those being sold next door at the Brilliant Smoke Shop.

Herb Maestro, an unregulated product, comes in three strengths.

The herbal cigarette is unregulated and technically legal, but it causes a kind of “high,” said store manager David Cramm.

Similar products, sometimes called spice, have already caused concern in Alberta, motivating police there to warn people to stay away from buying or smoking them.

The Saint John store stopped selling the product a week ago, said employee Alex DeLong.

“I actually don’t like it myself,” he said. “I actually hate that we sold the stuff and everything, because it just doesn’t affect people right … it makes people dopey and it makes people basically fall asleep. I don’t like the stuff.”

The cigarettes were a popular item in the smoke shop, where they could be picked up for as little as $5.50 each.

“Herb Maestro” could include: canavaliamaritima (coastal jack-bean), nymphaea caerulea (blue egyptian water lilly), scutellarianana (dwarf skullcap), pedicularisdensiflora (indian warrior), leonotisleonurus (lion’s tail), zornialatifolia (maconha brava), and leonurus sibiricus (honeyweed). 

Cramm calls it a “synthetic all natural smoking herb” that is legal and free of active ingredients such as THC, which is found in marijuana.

“It does have strong ingredients that can get people ‘high,’ but it is completely natural from my understanding,” Cramm said.

“I would advise people not to drive on it. I believe it should be treated like marijuana. You should be smoking it in your own home, not in public places.”

Cramm said the effects of smoking the cigarettes are “too extreme” for him and he has not tried the product for that reason.

Cutting off the customer

He also conceded that the man found in the parking lot was a Herb Maestro customer.

“We have experienced that in the past,” Cramm said. “When it comes to situations like that, what we do is we will completely cut off the customer, because that’s something that looks bad for our business and it looks bad on the substance itself.

“So whenever we have instances like this we just completely ban the customer from purchasing it again.”

Philip Lu, owner of the smoke shop, claims he’s been assured by Health Canada that he can carry the product, something that could not be verified Friday by CBC.

But Health Canada did issue a blunt “safety alert” to consumers in August 2017.

“Do not purchase or consume products labelled as “synthetic marijuana,” “smokeable herbal incense,” “exotic herbal incense,” “potpourri,” or “legal high,” said the notice on the department’s website.

“Consumers who have these products in their possession are strongly advised to dispose of them immediately.”

Brilliant Smoke Shop owner Philip Lu, says he received the go ahead to sell Herb Maestro from Health Canada, something CBC has so far been unable to confirm. (Brian Chisholm, CBC)

A spokesperson said the department will look into the Herb Maestro product in the coming days.

At the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, Matthew Young, a senior research and policy analyst, also has concerns.

He said the treated herbs are an unregulated market and the products being sold have had very little testing.

Even when active ingredients are listed, he said, it is difficult to know how much is in the cigarette and what impact it will have on the smoker.

Police looking into the product

“In the past six or seven years we have seen new psychoactive compounds that appear on the market,” said Young.

“If you don’t know kind of what you’re putting in your body and there’s very little research on what it does to your body, and you don’t know how much of it you’re putting in your body, it’s very difficult to try and use in a way that poses little risk to you.”

Saint John Police Insp. Tanya LeBlanc said the force plans to look into the sale of the product.

Codiac RCMP in Moncton say they have not received complaints or attended calls related specifically to the treated herb products.

At The Fish and Brews Pub, Dave Hersey no longer needs to see the research.

“It’s going to mess somebody up,” said Hersey. “I don’t know what they can do about it. I don’t think there’s anything they can do about it … it’s bad.”

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