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Users Stocked Up on Synthetic Marijuana

Posted on Jun 22,2011
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A synthetic marijuana user ponders what's left of his stash, now that it's illegal.
A synthetic marijuana user ponders what's left of his stash, now that it's illegal.

By Matt Birch

ALEXANDRIA, VA. - Just two months ago, synthetic marijuana was available for purchase at convenient stores, gas stations and drug paraphernalia shops across the country.
 
High school students were buzzing about the substance that provided them a “legal” method for getting high.

Now, possession of that product could draw a jail sentence.

But that hasn’t deterred young people from talking about it.

“People still brag about it in the hallways at school,” said Patrick Joun, a student at South County Secondary School in Falls Church. “People bought as much as they could last month and are still smoking it. Now everyone wants to know where they can still buy it.”

Photo by Matt Birch/Capital News Service <br /> <br />Just two months ago, synthetic marijuana was available for purchase at convenient stores, gas stations and drug paraphernalia shops across the country.
Photo by Matt Birch/Capital News Service
Just two months ago, synthetic marijuana was
available for purchase at convenient stores, gas
stations and drug paraphernalia shops across
the country.

Sold under brand names such as “Spice,” “K2,” “Blaze” and “Red X Dawn,” the plant-like substance is made of herbs and spices and marketed as herbal incense.
 
Each blend is sprayed with its own mix of research chemicals. When smoked, the product mimics the effects of cannabis on a user’s CB1 receptors.

Here’s the catch: The chemicals sprayed on the herbs are not structurally similar to cannabis. In fact, they do not contain any tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana.

“A lot of kids use it like it’s real weed and smoke it every day,” said 18-year-old Shelby Sowers of Fairfax. “But I think it’s much more dangerous. I’ve seen friends trip out and do some crazy things on K2. They get really hot and start panicking.”

Poison control centers and public health departments have issued health warnings about synthetic marijuana because of the harmful effects on users.
 
Officials at the American Association of Poison Control Centers said they have received 1,300 calls about synthetic marijuana this year alone – compared with 2,874 calls in all of 2010.

Reported side effects from using the drug include agitation, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, tachycardia (fast, racing heartbeat), elevated blood pressure, tremor, seizures, hallucinations, paranoid behavior and non-responsiveness, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Photo by Matt Birch/Capital News Service <br /> <br />Now, possession of that product could draw a jail sentence.
Photo by Matt Birch/Capital News Service
Now, possession of that product could draw
a jail sentence.

Calvina Fay, executive director for the Drug Free America Foundation, said she thinks the substance has a high potential for addiction. She said the drug is especially dangerous for young users.

“These products have become increasingly popular, especially among young people, because they are easily obtainable, cheap and legal and the vendors have, in many instances, directly targeted their marketing at youth,” she said.

At least 18 states, including Virginia, have passed legislation to criminalize possession and distribution of synthetic marijuana. All five branches of the U.S. military prohibit military personnel from possessing or using it.

But as individual government agencies cracked down, users stocked up.

“I sold more K2 in the last six months than in the previous two years combined,” said one convenience store owner in Richmond. He asked to remain anonymous to avoid trouble.

“People sometimes bought a couple of packages of it … boys, girls, men, women, a lot of different people.”

It was time for the federal government to step in and impose its will.

On March 1, the DEA exercised its emergency powers to list five of the most common research chemicals used to produce synthetic marijuana as Schedule I. The action was necessary to avoid an imminent hazard to the public safety, the agency said in a press release.

Other Schedule I drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, have no currently accepted medical use for treatment in the United States.

Photo by Matt Birch/Capital News Service <br /> <br />While Virginia’s new state law and the federal action have caused most businesses to stop selling the product, not all stores complied.
Photo by Matt Birch/Capital News Service
While Virginia’s new state law and the federal
action have caused most businesses to stop
selling the product, not all stores complied.

So if it’s illegal, how are people still managing to get high from synthetic marijuana?

Kashif Shah, a 22-year-old resident of Reston, said people were planning ahead.

“In March, a lot of places were still selling it, and I heard guys bought as much as they could,” he said. “It may not be sold in the stores anymore, but guys are still finding ways to get their hands on it. But I’m not sure what will happen six months from now when their supply runs out.”

While Virginia’s new state law and the federal action have caused most businesses to stop selling the product, not all stores complied.

On April 8, the owner of the D-H Food Mart in Mechanicsville was charged with distribution of “Spice” when investigators executed a search warrant after receiving a tip from a juvenile. While the substance was not openly displayed in the store, it was discovered during the search, according to investigators.

Hanover Sheriff’s Office investigators charged 55-year-old Nargis Odhwani of Midlothian and 23-year-old Rahal Atiyeh of Richmond. Both parties were released on bond.
Synthetic marijuana had been available for purchase on the market since 2006, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

For now, it remains illegal at the federal level and under many state laws. The DEA’s action will remain in effect for at least one year, with a possible six-month extension. That will give the agency and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services time to study whether the chemicals should be permanently banned.

Not everyone is in support of the DEA’s action.

Morgan Fox, communications manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, says that while he does not support usage of synthetic marijuana, it is unnecessary to declare the substance a Schedule I drug.

“DEA has a habit of trying to play catch-up with every new drug trend in the U.S., and it is a losing battle based on faulty premises,” Fox said. “Every time the government prohibits the use of any substance, users and innovators and entrepreneurs will actively seek an alternative.”

Virginia Commonwealth University student Danny Buttar agrees.

“People are still going to get high. I think they’re now realizing that synthetic pot is dangerous. And because it’s illegal, they probably won’t smoke it much anymore,” Buttar said.

“There’s a lot of real weed on the streets also, and I think people are now going to go back to smoking that – it’s safer.

“I mean really, who has died from smoking cannabis? The worst thing that happens is people fall asleep or eat too much. But that synthetic stuff – it’s dangerous, putting people in hospital rooms and soon, jail.”
 
Matt Birch writes for Capital News Service.

On the Web

To read the full press release from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, visit www.justice.gov/dea/pubs/pressrel/pr112410.html

To read the full press release from the American Association of Poison Control Centers, visit www.aapcc.org/dnn/Portals/0/k2releasefinal.pdf

The Law in Virginia

In February, the General Assembly unanimously passed legislation making possession of “synthetic cannabinoids” a Class 1 misdemeanor. That law also applies to possession of the chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana.

A Class 1 misdemeanor is punishable in Virginia by up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine. This is the same penalty for possession of marijuana in the state.

Under Virginia’s new law, it is a felony to manufacture, sell or distribute synthetic marijuana.

The legislation contained an emergency clause. So it took effect immediate after Gov. Bob McDonnell signed it into law on March 23.

To read or comment on the legislation, or to watch videos of lawmakers discussing the measures, visit:
www.richmondsunlight.com/bill/2011/hb1434/
www.richmondsunlight.com/bill/2011/sb745/



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