Until this year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been blocked from shutting down vendors selling aromatic incense that comes in packages marked “not for human consumption.” This meant that anyone, including minors, could walk into shops, convenience stores and even gas stations, pay between $18 and $30 and walk out with legal synthetic marijuana.

On March 1, 2011, the DEA took steps to change this. They evoked emergency powers to put a year-long ban pending testing on five lab-manufactured chemicals contained in these products, JWH-018, JWH-073, CP-47,497, JWH-200, and cannabicyclohexanol. Each substance is a designer drug that mimics the primary psychoactive ingredient, THC, found in marijuana. The chemicals are sprayed onto herbal plant matter that is packaged and sold as aromatic incense. But did this ban solve the problem?

“Unfortunately, the DEA can only ban specific psychoactive chemicals,” explains Bobby Wiggins Drug Prevention Specialist of Narconon International. “As soon as the banned compounds are no longer found in the product, vendors are right back in business. The problem is manufacturing labs are able to make tiny alterations in the molecular structure of the THC-like derivative compounds used, which allows them to replace banned chemicals with new ones that have similar, but possibly more potent properties that are outside DEA jurisdiction.”

Case in point, even as 30 states work to block the sale of K2, an incense product that led to psychosis severe enough to prompt a healthy 18-year-old athlete to shoot himself in the head, K3 arrived on the scene boasting that it was 100% free of banned chemicals and legal in all 50 states. Of course, the new product’s packaging also reads, “not for human consumption.”

Synthetic marijuana has been around for almost two decades but it was largely ignored as few people were impressed by its properties. But In late 2008, herbal incense products started showing up from Europe containing traces of a psychoactive chemical known as HU-210. The compound is a Schedule I controlled substance that can be from 100 to 800 times as potent as THC.

In 2009, Germany banned the sale of another herbal incense-type product, “spice,” because tests revealed it contained JWH-018 and another potent chemical, CP-47 497, developed by a drug company in the 1980s for research purposes. Its effects are three to 28 times more potent than THC.

According to the U.S Department of Justice, between March 2010 and December 2010, U.S. poison control centers received over 2,700 synthetic cannabinoid related calls from 49 states. It’s too soon to say if long-term use of THC derivatives cause permanent harm, but so far there is evidence of damage to the lungs, brain, heart, and other vital organs. Attributed deaths in 2010 were nine.

“With authorities hampered, the burden falls heavily on parents to keep this drug out of kids’ hands,” says Wiggins. “Kids might reason that it is okay because they aren’t breaking any laws, but they are messing with very potent and addictive drugs. If you suspect your son or daughter could be using synthetic marijuana or other drugs, get help.”

Whatever type of marijuana teenagers are smoking, it still counts as teen drug abuse, especially when they smoke it on a regular basis.

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