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Synthetic Marijuana: What Parents Need To Know

A selection of synthetic marijuana, 
clockwise from left: 
Mr. Nice Guy,
Peace of Mind,
Mr. Kwik-E,
and XXX 
(which uses the logo for 
Monster Energy drink).
What is synthetic marijuana? Herbs sold as incense in small packets. The plants have been sprayed with a chemical that is designed to mimic THC, the active ingredient in pot.

Where is it sold? Often available at liquor stores, gas stations and convenience stories.

How much does it cost? About $30 for 3 grams.

What are the possible side-effects? Dizziness, nausea, agitation, irregular or racing heartbeat, hallucinations or coma.

Synthetic marijuana (also called fake pot) is legal in some U.S. States, is sold in many gas stations and convenience stores, and to some, it sounds pretty harmless with names like "Mr. Nice Guy" and "Peace of Mind." But, synthetic marijuana has left such a trail of emergency room visits and possibly even deaths in its wake that 15 states have banned it and at least 20 more are trying to.

Mr. Nice Guy, one of the main brands of the "incense" that authorities targeted, is no longer sold, but on its website, the manufacturer promotes the brand “Barely Legal” – announcing it is "Legal in all 50 states." Barely Legal is one of the new generation of synthetic marijuana products, formulated to beat the ban.

The synthetic nature of synthetic marijuana makes it exceptionally difficult to keep tabs on. The cannabinoids used to produce it can be changed with slight laboratory tweaks, and hundreds are already out there, so a ban on current varieties can easily be sidestepped.

Synthetic marijuana often comes in tea bag-sized packets, with labels in some cases that announce: "Not for human consumption." It's sold by shopkeepers as incense. But, it's not much of an air freshener. Instead, it's any one of a variety of herbal plants, sprayed with a chemical designed to mimic the active ingredient in pot: THC. And with labeling like "100 percent drug-test safe," and its positioning on sales racks beside pipes and bongs, there's little doubt of its true purpose.

Synthetic marijuana is sold for up to $30 for 3 grams, a higher price than the real deal, and completely legal in some States – and impossible to detect on a traditional drug urine test.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) fielded 1,670 calls last year from emergency room doctors and panicked members of the public over the substance. That's up from only 14 calls in 2009. Synthetic marijuana wasn't even on the AAPCC's radar until recently.

Marijuana highs are often associated with sleepiness and paranoia, but the symptoms poison control authorities report hearing about the synthetic version include dizziness, nausea, agitation, abnormally fast heartbeat and hallucinations. Some patients are in a coma, and others have heart dysrhythmia.

News accounts tentatively link some form of synthetic marijuana to the deaths of at least three teens – one each in Texas, Wisconsin and Iowa. Parents in one of the deaths say their child was high on the drug when he made a fatal mistake behind the wheel of a car. The family of another claimed he shot himself after smoking it.

So what's in synthetic marijuana? No ingredients are listed, but the recipe for all synthetic marijuana is similar (and peddled on a variety of websites). Of course, there's a plant involved, but any of several will do. The part that delivers the high is sprayed on the plant and can come from several compounds, such as JWH-018.

JWH-018 was created by an undergraduate student in a Clemson University laboratory in the summer of 1995. It was created not to get thousands of people stoned, but to investigate the biological effects of compounds with biology similar to marijuana.

Recently, five testers (who will rename anonymous) bought two varieties of synthetic marijuana at a botanical store and "smoked up in the parking lot like a bunch of high school kids getting stoned before first bell." The overwhelming consensus (among both regular and non-regular pot smokers) was that synthetic marijuana got the job done – but not for long enough. One tester stated, “It didn't last long, but I did feel some visual effects …things appeared bright, slightly blurry …and a relaxed physical state.” Another tester stated, "Synthetic marijuana made me feel just as uncomfortable and self-conscious as actual marijuana."

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